Besides the great ‘High by the Beach’, I’ve never really connected with anything this melancholic pop chanteuse has done before. I disliked her Born to Die and love-as-Ultraviolence eternal teenager schtick, despite being fascinated by that floating voice. And I found the oh… so… slow… dirges of Honeymoon just… too… lethargic.
So it was with great excitement that several listens into Lust for Life I noticed my total engagement as a listener, throughout every single one of its 71 minutes. The first couple of times it sounded too long, for sure, but when I finally set myself the task of considering which songs should be cut, I was stumped – they all succeed as entertainment, art or both.
What’s changed from the early days? How’s her consistency percentage suddenly shot so high? Perhaps the key’s to be found in a recent interview Del Rey did with Pitchfork, where she reveals: ‘When things are good, the music is better.’
That sounds like wisdom to me. Maturity, even. One of the biggest fallacies in music is that you have to suffer for your art: life is full of pain, we all know that, but that doesn’t mean it’s only pain. Nihilistic despair, particularly with regards to romance, is an easy trick to deploy in pop music because it generates instant empathy from an audience with plenty of problems of their own. Artists who acknowledge the simple pleasures in life, without making it sound schmaltzy or too ignorant of real-world pain, deserve a lot more respect, I believe.
So on Lust for Life it’s no coincidence that things are going pretty well in Del Rey’s life and the music is better. In fact, just as she predicted, they’re interlinked.
Along with long-time producer Rick Nowels and a team of co-writers, Del Rey fashions an album that still sounds downbeat on the surface – there’s lots of minor-key ballads, funereal tempos, and eerie multitracked vocals – but that also manages to hide plenty of subtle summery touches underneath. So the haunted ‘White Mustang’ starts off with just a soft piano accompaniment and Del Rey’s quiver, before it starts piling on trap beats like a pop Bolero, soon taking it into an unexpectedly danceable realm. It shouldn’t sound inspirational, but it does.
Fun is to be found round every corner, with a lust for life and music very much keeping her alive. She quotes Iggy Pop on the album title and cover, of course, but throughout the album she also drops references to such classic rock staples as The Angels, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sam Cooke, and Neil Young (the ending ‘Out of the black/Into the blue’ is nicked straight from Rust Never Sleeps). Her distinctive contralto, shuffling between octaves with ease, also deliberately evokes past greats such as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Amy Winehouse. Her love and respect for the culture that created her comes across powerfully, perhaps most entertainingly on a duet with Sean Ono Lennon where she suddenly exclaims: ‘“Isn’t life crazy?” I said/Now that I’m singing with Sean/Whoa!’ It’s a great moment, with the Stevie Nicks collab ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’ further proof that Del Rey should do more duets. The fangirldom of these moments are incredibly fetching – they sound distinctly like her fallback pessimism being shattered and replaced by the communal spirit that good music should bring.
Darkness gets dispelled everywhere on Lust for Life – even on the political cuts, which are a first for Del Rey. At first you might suspect the title of ‘God Bless America’ to be ironic, considering the nation’s current president, but then consider the subtitle: ‘And All the Beautiful Women In It’. Irony melts away. Then the following track asks: ‘Is it the end of an era?/Is it the end of America?’ and bravely answers it with ‘No, it’s only the beginning.’ That song’s called ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, but an alternative title might be ‘Fuck Trump – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.
Elsewhere there’s an ode to love (you guessed it, ‘Love’), followed by an ode to sex and dancing on the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign with The Weeknd (‘Lust for Life’). There’s also a search for ‘something real’ that ingeniously uses a backdrop of faker-than-fake synthesizers (’13 Beaches’). And then there’s the last track, ‘Get Free’, which has been criticised for snatching its melody from Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, and indeed it does. But then Thom Yorke’s never penned a lyric as smart as this: ‘Take the dead out of the sea/And the darkness from the arts/This is my commitment/My modern manifesto’ (I don’t know who wrote it, but Del Rey owns it). In fact, it’s the very antithesis of Yorke’s own philosophy. So whisper it: I think ‘Get Free’ is a much better song than ‘Creep’.
Back in 2014, Lana Del Rey sang on Ultraviolence: ‘I look pretty when I cry’. Lust for Life is here to prove that she looks and sounds a whole lot prettier when she smiles.