Lana Del Rey is a numbing agent. Take your pick of anesthetic: benzos, ketamine, heroin, Urban Outfitters… Lana embraces them all. And on her new album, Honeymoon, her numbness reaches its zenith.But like any of the feedback loops Del Rey is wont to send the critical mind into, there’s something… somewhat interesting about the album’s existence just atop the threshold of completely losing our interest. In the album’s biggest single, “High By the Beach,” she slothfully proclaims, “All I wanna do is get high by the beach,” set above the sound of her insubstantial moans being sucked into a high-tech vacuum. In the video, she bazookas a paparazzi helicopter with such disinterest as to declare the thesis statement of the album: Over It. The question is, are we?
Del Rey is like a psychiatrist who has gradually put her sound on a track toward overmedication, increasing the dosage with each album — and it’s now this close to overdosing. We’re at the point where she’s almost nonverbal, her choruses slurred insinuations.
The trajectory towards an overmedicated sound started with Born to Die — though really it started with ancient man. Within bourgeois modernity, the survival instinct that propels anxiety and used to save prehistoric individuals from predators doesn’t know what to do with itself. Anxiety in this vein is bred, now, from abstracts — namely, info-saturation and the unknowns of the Internet. So it’s no surprise that pills are the catalyst of this inauthentic evolution. Born to Die was the soundtrack to this experience — Del Rey having been one such “unknown” of the Internet when she first emerged. The album was a clumsy, blundering yet potent trek through a counterfeit multiplicity of modernity and its regurgitation of the past. Del Rey herself sang and appeared as regurgitated, counterfeited multiples.
She was a Lolita, a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” a “china doll,” “your little scarlet/starlet,” a viral joke given more serious critical consideration than most foreign wars. It seemed an unfettered — and only lightly medicated — reflection of a frenetic reality, maximalist in its references, minimalist in soulfulness. Its Internet-derived (“Video Games”) pastiche brilliantly represented what’s at the core of so many anxieties — the obfuscation of what is and isn’t authentic — and, indeed, it made the whole critical world anxious. The album was thus critiqued for its imbalance, its stilted allusions, vacant imitations. It was hard to deal with something as naive-campily — or deliberate-campily? — representative of the surface-skimming times as Del Rey.
On Ultraviolence, Del Rey gave critics what they wanted while spitting (or lightly drooling?) in their faces. She continued to be a mirror for people’s earlier attacks of “inauthenticity,” deliberately parroting notions that she “Fucked Her Way to the Top” and was after “Money, Power, Glory.” But she popped some tranquilizers into her sound, chillaxed, evened out, creating an illusion of a perfected embodiment of the Del Rey costume through reverbed vocals, setting clear, unmitigated, and simple guitars in front of the faraway panorama of her voice. Del Rey spoke of fighting for a single with a chorus that was slower than the verse — “West Coast.” People ate it up, entranced by hearing the singer slip further from them — into a distant daze — when traditional pop structures dictated she should come closer. It didn’t matter if she was truly “authentic” anymore — she cohered, and we so keenly prize coherence. The figurative meds were working: society embraced the modified, leveled Del Rey that, through dissociation, bore an unshakeable cool. Her image as an artist became stronger, on Ultraviolence, by fading.
Though she’s dropped some of the rock flourishes Dan Auerbach may have brought to Ultraviolence — and reverted to exploring “vintage” sensibilities through classic Hollywood strings and hip-hop on Honeymoon — it’s more coherent than on Born to Die. Of course, she’s now fully entered the benzo black hole she opened in the chorus of “West Coast,” and is plunging “deeper and deeper…darker and darker,” as she suggests on “The Blackest Day,” away from any emotional immediacy.
Some of the album’s songs seem to dully ape the formulas of its predecessor— perhaps because the album comes a mere year after Ultraviolence. “Music to Watch Boys To” isn’t as kitschy as you’d want it to be from its title, and the melody through which she sings, “Pink flamingos always fascinated me” — yes, really — is distinctly reminiscent of “Sad Girl.” “Swan Song” shows Del Rey’s ability to take a bi-syllabic cliché — as on Ultraviolence‘s “Black Beauty” — and repeat it like a particularly melodic conversational English lesson. Often, it seems like the Amnesiac to her Kid A.
As on Ultraviolence, the camp factor — which is still a huge lyrical presence — is less of a sonic one. The album is expertly produced by Del Rey herself, as well as Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies, to sound cohesively, beautifully exhausted. The camp elements, which Nitsuh Abebe long ago noted were a strength of Born to Die, don’t stand out, because they’re blurred rather than punctuated. “Salvatore” is perhaps the best and funniest track on the album — tapping into the same catchy ridiculousness heard on Born to Die — and is a notable exception.
Del Rey described “Salvatore” as “Old World Italian,” and the song is the musical equivalent of Buca di Beppo (albeit, a Buca di Beppo attended — and savored! — under the influence of any of the aforementioned drugs). Its chorus even includes two dishes you can surely purchase at the kitschy national chain: “Cacciatore/La la la la la la la la la la/Limousines/…Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah/Soft iced cream” (“gelato” does not rhyme, you see). It’s mournful and pretty, maintaining the lethargy of the rest of the album, but just as you’d notice and relish the first joke from someone coming out of a coma, it sticks out. “24” adds on to “Salvatore”s’ introduction of signifiers of old European femininity, with its Spanish-ish trumpet-and-castanet swirls; these, along with the vox organ squealing its way through “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” hint at an interest in instrumental experimentation, a slight desire to break the rules — or whatever rules apply to Del Rey’s brand of sleepy-50s-noir-hip-hop-pop.
Meanwhile, the album’s most affecting track, “God Knows I Tried,” stretches into a legitimately climactic chorus, and seems a plea to escape from the cool vacuity of the LDR persona that’s especially heavy on this album: “God knows I tried/So let there be light/…Light up my life” she sings, full force.
Her T.S. Eliot interlude “Burnt Norton” is especially curious, as she quotes the same-named poem that cherishes the present above the past and future. Back on Born to Die, Lana Del Rey may have been doing just that: she illustrated the present by making a patchwork joke — that was also often melodic and baffling and alluring — of everything that came before it. But on Honeymoon, it seems she’s neither past, nor present, nor future — with an even more lackadaisical sound than ever, she’s nearing the mouth of a timeless void. The dangerous closeness of that void keeps her music partially engaging here, despite its resistance to engagement. But it demands the question: will her next album slip entirely into that void, swallowing what’s left of what made her interesting in the first place?