LANA DEL RAY: NORMAN F***ING ROCKWELL!
The best hi-fi demonstration recording you are never going to hear!
I am late to the Lana Del Rey party I know but when Hi-Fi Choice alumni Del Gentleman played the first track of last year’s fellow NFR! the combination of fabulous production and potty mouthed yet intelligent lyrics made an impression. As pop musicians go Del Rey is clearly ahead of the pack, she sings like an angel but what she sings about is the rotten core of the glossy unreality that is spewed out of celebrity culture every day. The opening line of the opening song, the title song at that, almost sums it up: “You f…ed me so good I almost said I love you”, it’s almost punk disguised as what used to be called adult oriented rock. The voice takes centre stage on all the 14 songs on NFR! and the accompaniment usually enhances the polish of the production, only occasionally breaking out and letting rip.
Del Rey has steeped this album in mythology of the seventies Californian music scene not least in her references to Laurel Canyon, Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Eagles among others. Yet while the sound is reminiscent of say Rumours the style of composition is very different, as are the lyrics which deal with the crumbling of the American dream rather than its reinforcement, I particularly like “Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon, know-it-all” from the title track. But this album is also a sonic fantasy, the voice sits in a velvet envelope on many tracks, highlit with reverb and other studio trickery it’s larger than life and just as polished as the fantasies that it sings about. That doesn’t stop Del Rey from sounding fabulous of course and when the backing ramps up to deliver some meaty synth bass you can easily forgive the manipulation that’s required to deliver such lush goods.
You want a walk in soundstage, put ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ on at a reasonable level and you’ve got it, this is a wideband recording that’s not squashed by too much compression. The Dynamic range isn’t huge but it’s enough to give some contrast between voice and backing and seems to vary between tracks too. ‘Venice Bitch’ is the longest and most musically ambitious track on NFR! it also has some of the best words including “fresh out of f…ks forever” and “You’re beautiful and I’m insane, We’re American-made”. It’s the extended and largely instrumental second half that distinguishes it from the rest of the album, a fusion of distorted guitar, crazy synth noodling and general mayhem that is lightly sprinkled with Del Rey’s dulcet tones.
It’s hard not to like the a title, and refrain, like ‘F… it I love you’, especially when it comes from such an angelic voice, this really is 21st century crooning at its most audacious. This tune is also one of the more inventive on the album with vocal lines overlapping one another in very effective fashion, it’s not just talking trash. ‘Doin’ Time’ has a raft of writing credits because it borrows lines from all over, opening with the first line of Girshwin’s ‘Summertime’, it was ‘written’ by Californian ska punk band Sublime and has the biggest beats of the whole album. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ has more than a nod to Neil Young in its grungy guitar although it’s not his song and Del Rey’s voice is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the legendary Kermit.
The languorous ‘How to disappear’ is another love song that differs from the rest in great lines such as ‘I watched the guys getting high as they fight, For the things that they hold dear, To forget the things they fear’. It’s not Dylan but by mainstream standards it’s creative. ‘The next best American record’ features a cleaner and more open vocal and sounds more real in both tone and content, with a powerful beat on the chorus and a raw honest feel that keeps things interesting. The last tune has the longest title in ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – but I Have It’ and is perhaps the closest to soul baring that’s on the album, you get the sense that Del Rey has everything she could want but doesn’t really know what to do with it so seeks solace in romance. The voice becomes fragile towards the end which gives it an emotional punch that’s not found elsewhere.
NFR! isn’t the most varied of albums but at its peaks it works very well indeed, this coupled with a fabulous production make it the best sounding album you are not likely to hear in a hi-fi dem anytime soon.