Review: ‘Born To Die’

12 Mar

Photography by Glynis Selina Arban, property of Complex Magazine

In music today, authenticity, or the appearance of it is everything. The internet is a double-edged sword of opportunity for artists who rely on a mysterious persona to garner interest in their projects. Withholding everything about oneself is widely regarded as the cheapest way to create hype. For acts like The Weeknd, mystique has been a central part of their appeal and the media have been cordial enough. But to others — namely recent New York upstart, Lana Del Rey — the media has been incredibly ruthless.


In order to understand the self-effacing vixen’s predicament, one has to delve into her history. Lizzy Grant, the name Lana was born with, is 25 years-old and grew up in Lake Placid, about five hours north of New York City. She honed her vocals at a young age singing in school choirs. At 18, she signed to an indie label and created an album with acclaimed producer, David Kahne (The Strokes, Paul McCartney). The album, “Lana Del Rey aka Lizzy Grant”, is no longer available. Since then, the former blonde has gone red-headed and  adopted a style some would call “vintage”, sporting lace dresses and low-cut Converse.

After releasing a homemade video of her single “Video Games”, a composition of grainy home videos found on Youtube coupled with shots of Lana singing in an empty hallway and cruising along on a moped, the young starlet was placed under fire. It seemed every blog had a hyperbolic opinion of the singer, whether good or bad. Carles, anonymous blog sensation of the popular Hipster Runoff, was one of her sharpest critics, renaming the site “The Lana Del Report” and saying that Lana was a “MASSIVE DISASTER” and that “indie tastemakers will turn on her album if she continues to ‘absolutely butcher’ the ~1.5 decent songs that she already has,”.

The songstress recently preformed on Saturday Night Live to much disdain from the public. A leaked email of NBC’s Brian Williams dismissed her as “one of the worst outings in SNL history.” What is irking is the progressively stupid discussion regarding Del Rey’s authenticity. We accept the need to temporarily suspend belief when watching movies, why are we so averted to the idea when listening to music? It appears this suspension is applied selectively, for most modern-day artists have some sort of gimmick behind them, whether it be a songwriter, a manager, a label, an A&R person, or a publicist. Plenty of artists have adopted a carefully concocted pseudonym and reached stardom including  the much revered Bob Dylan, so why are we so quick to angrily assume Lana has somehow duped us? If popular music is mentioned in the same breath as movies are, why is it that no movie review trounces an actor for portraying a character who is something that they are not?

After examining her through the media’s eyes, we can finally begin to talk about the only thing that matters, the music itself.


Above is the album cover of what will be Del Rey’s major label debut, Born To Die, which is to be distributed by Interscope Records on January 31st. The album was exectutive-produced by Emile Haynie — famous for creating trippy soundscapes for Kid Cudi, and co-producing Kanye West’s “Runaway” — who took a much different approach than usual. Most of the songs are cast to the same mold; densely string-laden and arranged in a minimalist sense so as to emphasize Lana’s sonorous vocals.

On the first single, ‘Born To Die’, we find Lana crooning some cliche, albeit heart-wrenching lines such as, “lost but now I am found”, in her trademark low register as she attempts to shed light on a doomed relationship that she seems unable to let go of. At first glance, the tracklisting may seem top-heavy with her acclaimed hits, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” rounding out the first four tracks. But given an acute listen, the album rewards the listener by bringing to light several significant tracks. The second track, “Off To The Races”, shows Lana tearing a page out of the famous Nabokov novel, Lolita, singing the famous quote, “light of my life, fire of my loins,” with a sense of exigency completely foreign to most debuts.

The name-checking of brands, a hip-hop mainstay, is a prevalent technique employed by Del Rey. Some of these brand references are unbearably cringe-inducing; New York is equated to a soda on “Diet Mountain Dew” while the hipster staple, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, is associated with “drinking in the small town firelight”. But these allusions to popular culture are more than just lowbrow plays for attention as they highlight Lana’s admirable ability to make fun of herself and the alternative scene she’s trying to win over. In short, she doesn’t give a f*ck what others think. Two of the album’s previously unheard standouts are clustered together in the middle, the first being “National Anthem”, a song whose sugary opening chords bring to mind  The Verve’s infamous “Bittersweet Symphony”. “Dark Paradise”, the second, finds Del Rey lost in a dream, likening her past lover’s face to a melody and bitterly arguing with friends who suggest she move on.

The deluxe version features two brilliant tracks in ‘Without You’ and ‘Lucky Ones’. On ‘Without You’, Lana undergoes a miraculous transformation of consciousness where she realizes the materialistic world she has wandered into is nothing without love, “All my dreams and all the lights mean nothing without you,”. The brilliantly nostalgic album closer, ‘Lucky One’, brings with it an endearing level of vulnerability. We find Lana thankful for finding love and moved by what she says to Pitchfork is the angels deciding to shine on her for a little while.

Ultimately, when you close your eyes and let the beautiful melodies suffuse you, the music is incredibly empowering. More people should  watch a superstar’s career unfold  instead of critiquing an image, as proud producer Emile says on Twitter:

The good folks over at Complex put together a terrific cover story on the star in their February/March issue, check it out here

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