Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
BORN TO DIE
Performer: Lana Del Rey
Label: Interscope, Polydor, Stranger
If Lana Del Rey deserves to be credited for anything, it is becoming a talking point. Having struggled to attract attention as Lizzy Grant, her new persona has certainly hit the ground running on that count. For mostly the wrong reasons, Del Rey has become 2012's first musical water cooler landmark. Sensing the ferocity of the backlash - SNL performance, surgery, blah blah - many of the sites who once pushed her as the next big thing after catching wind of her break-through track 'Video Games' were quick to tear into her album.
More than most, Del Rey is suffering from the internet's over-reactive tendencies, as quick to push onto the big stage as boo off moments later. Tempting though it is to sneer at a singer for an adopted persona, Grant/Del Rey is hardly the first - does no-one remember the Britney virgin girl act anymore? - and perceived 'authenticity' no metric by which to judge musical worth. But once the dust has settled, which version of Del Rey will be left standing? The mesmerising new voice in indie music, or the cynical marketing campaign?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is neither. Over-reactions tend to exaggerate the best and worst aspects of their targets and the internet's mauling of Born To Die is no different. 'Video Games' is a strong track, the one most comfortably fitting into Del Rey's self-styled 'gangsta Nancy Sinatra' persona, but isn't quite the world-beater it was initially made out to be. The refrain has an engaging sense of longing, delicately tragic without becoming overbearing, but never quite sparks emotionally. 'Born To Die' is more showy, but the low register of Del Rey's singing lends a trashy noir smokiness to the delivery that positions the singer more as frustrated diva than mourning lover. It's hammy but catchy, as close to 'fun' as the album gets.
The rest of the album struggles to reconcile those two personas into a consistent identity. If there's one recurring problem with Born To Die, it is that Del Rey doesn't seem certain of who her new self is yet. The bits and pieces are there, but the gaps have yet to be filled in. Is she the girl next door weeping for a world passing her by, or the ambitious young star betrayed by the American dream? When she performs as the former, as in 'Video Games', 'This Is What Makes Us Girls' or bonus track 'Without You', her story is more personable. As the latter, her album is given greater thematic weight, with recurring motifs of female commodification and the desperation to please that comes with seeking fame. There's a eerie prescience to those themes, given the way the Del Rey debate has been rife with accusations that almost certainly wouldn't have been levelled at a male singer.
Unfortunately, if there's one aspect of the album that could legitimately be called into question by her supposed inauthenticity, it is the artistic intent of someone who readily admitted her persona is the product of lawyers and managers. Since Gaga went stratospheric, the idea of fame as a honey trap has become a popular subject for female singers to draw on and the feeling pervades that Del Rey is covering it more out of duty than having anything original to say.
That would explain why the tracks casting Del Rey in that role feel so discordant, approaching the topic from every conceivable angle but never finding one that sticks: 'Lolita' is a trainwreck of overproduction; 'Dark Paradise' inoffensive but completely forgettable; 'Off To The Races' a mess of clichéd lyrics (including an egregious use of two iconic lines from Nabokov's Lolita novel) and bad girl attitude. 'National Anthem' is the most memorable of these tracks, managing to feel loosely satirical and just a little catchy, although nowhere near as strongly on either score as Marina & The Diamonds' 'Hollywood'. The ideas are there, but the execution is sorely in need of focus.
Del Rey is more convincing when keeping her songs closer to home. In the same bruised small-town temptress role as 'Born To Die' (the track), 'Blue Jeans' is as close as any track on the album to matching the success and tone of its headline singles. 'Radio', despite its entirely arbitrary use of the 'f' word, neatly contrasts the sweet delivery with lyrics that are slightly discomforting in the singer's reductive yearning to be desired ("Baby love me 'cause I'm on the radio"). Only 'Diet Mountain Dew' fall flat, due to Del Rey's unconvincing adoption of a tone best described as a second-rate Shaznay Lewis.
Despite what her fierce detractors or advocates would have you believe, 'Born To Die' is neither a travesty nor second coming. It's pretty much the album that might be expected from a singer showing glimpses of talent in a handful of standout tracks, but not yet ready to take full advantage of it. Only 'Lolita' lives up to the singer's worst publicity and only 'Born To Die' and 'Video Games' (and perhaps 'Blue Jeans') are worthy of her highest accolades. Whether as Lizzy Grant or Lana Del Rey, the singer needs to spend time consolidating who she is and what she wants to say through her music. Disregarding the one bad performance she is known for, when she lets her voice do the work, it has a hypnotic quality that allows the album's themes to flourish. When mucking around with gimmicky lyrics and deliveries, she comes perilously close to turning into the attention-seeking, squeaky-voiced sex object condemned elsewhere. In other words, she turns out to be much more creditable singer than she is a talking point. [ 6 ]
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