There are certain unwritten rules that come with being a music critic, which pertain to the preservation of integrity as a means of preventing such artistic commentators from abusing their cultural influence to push a particular viewpoint. Arguably the most important of the standards to be upheld in this uncodified Hippocratic Oath for music reviewers is the idea that no critic should go into an analysis of a piece of music with a presupposed opinion on, or bias against, the artist or their art, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, this credo is all too often infringed upon by personal vendettas held by critics against specific musicians, leading to such exhibitions of journalistic dishonesty and prejudice as that which was displayed by certain music publications following the release of Tyler, The Creator’s latest album, Flower Boy, wherein writers were desperate to paint the rapper’s admission of his past relationships with other men as a fabrication conceived to troll those who had criticised his use of homophobic slurs in the past. This being said, bias and expectations are often unfairly conflated. Going into a record with a set of suppositions is not necessarily a bad thing, rather it’s only natural that singles, album teasers and an artist’s previous output would influence what a listener would expect to hear, consciously or not, and just because a listener may retain particular expectations of a music release doesn’t instantly mean that these presumptions will sway their overall verdict on the quality of the music. If anything, from a critic’s perspective, it can be useful to acknowledge one’s presuppositions of an album as a means of remaining conscious of not allowing such expectations to skew one’s evaluation of the music. For me personally, striking this balance between anticipation and impartiality proves more and more difficult to apply to baroque pop star Lana Del Rey upon the release of every new record of hers.
When an artist has established a particular track record for themselves throughout their discography, it’s inevitable that one’s expectations for any new material from said artist will be skewed depending on one’s opinions on their previous output. As much as I am aware of this fact, my past experiences with Lana Del Rey’s music have been too consistently poor for me to enter any new project of hers with even neutral expectations. This, however, arises not from my own bias against her or her artistry, but simply because the bad habits she has displayed throughout her career have showed little to no signs of changing since the launch of her breakout, sophomore album, Born To Die from 2012. The songstress’ melodramatic lyricism has always struggled to resonate with those who seek depth beneath an overly-emotional veneer, with Del Rey being so lacking in self-awareness and so incapable of accepting consequences at times that her maudlin personality could occasionally be downright insulting. Similarly, her superficial vintage sound and over-reliance on her weak, baby-voiced singing has led to some of modern pop music’s most mind-numbingly monotonous releases, which came to a head on the vapid Americana nostalgia of the musician’s third album, Ultraviolence. With this said, in spite of my scepticisms, Del Rey’s previous project, 2015’s Honeymoon, translated rather substantial improvements to the singer’s songwriter fundamentals and her ability to capture at least some semblance of realism or populism in her mawkish lyrics, even if these improvements were very minimal and overshadowed by many of the musician’s repeat offences across the rest of the record. Nonetheless, with this album displaying undeniable improvements to Del Rey’s attempted retro artistry practically across the board, the idea that the teary-eyed pop star could continue to mature on future releases seemed like a very real prospect, with the unveiling of Love, the lead single from her newest record, Lust For Life, adding a great deal of weight to this possibility, being perhaps her most polished and well-conceived song since her breakout single, Video Games. Then again, the fact that Del Rey has brought so many guest artists and producers onto Lust For Life raised questions regarding the record’s consistency, which is ramified further by the tracklisting’s 72-minute duration, clocking in as the artist’s longest album thus far. Scouring the record’s list of features reveals quite a mixed bag of possibilities for how Lust For Life could pan out. The appearance of The Weeknd, for instance, makes sense, given how his melodramatic tendencies parallel Del Rey’s in a lot of ways, whereas the feature from XXL Freshman Playboi Carti is nothing short of baffling. With cracks in the album’s cohesion being apparent just from the personnel brought into the fold, it came as no surprise that Lust For Life, despite featuring some of Del Rey’s best material, is easily the musician’s most inconsistent project to date. Perhaps the strangest revelation concerning Lust For Life, however, is the fact that, although there is such an eclectic array of artists and producers behind the project, it somehow remains persistently monotonous, with Del Rey’s admittedly broadened pool of stylistic ideas being presented in such a similar fashion as to come off as almost entirely one-dimensional. Even from a lyrical perspective, whilst the songwriter has toned down her obnoxious, histrionic superficialities, Del Rey still has little of any depth of character or serious thought to say on her new album, regardless of how much she attempts to present herself as propounding higher commentary on cultural and moral issues. Ultimately, although Lust For Life is a far cry from the excruciating tedium of Ultraviolence, it displays Lana Del Rey as succumbing, once again, to some of her old bad habits, whilst also picking up some new ones.
For all of the guest musicians and producers employed on Lust For Life, it genuinely seemed as if Del Rey could avoid devolving into her usual habits of mechanically manufacturing songs with a monochrome sonic palette that rely more on mood than songwriting skills or lyrical substance. Yet, even amidst the somewhat heightened stylistic diversity across the course of the album, the singer-songwriter consistently falls back on some of the numerous artistic dependencies that have so commonly bogged down her music in the past. Even though Del Rey relies far more on her mid-range singing than the gaudy, high-pitched cooing of her past material, her detached, faux-moody vocal delivery is often too weak to carry an entire song, with even the best song in the tracklisting, Love, as well as cuts like Change, losing momentum during their chorus sections as the singer struggles to deliver her meandering croons with a consistent volume or resonance. Likewise, songs such as In My Feelings see Del Rey resort to the horribly forced semblance of sensuality for which the songstress has so often strived but never captured in any endearing fashion, with the clumsy stuttering of her breathy performance allowing her vocals to all too easily be overshadowed by the buzzing instrumentation. Indeed, the production across Lust For Life hardly compliments Del Rey’s singing for the most part, with there instead being plenty of attempts to seemingly cushion the artist’s vocals in some general, brooding ambience and strengthen them with copious amounts of multi-tracking and over-dubbing, but such techniques are consistently carried out in a rather ungainly fashion that simply results in some horribly clunky mixing that barely captures an ounce of the elegance that it seemed to be pursuing. This is true to the point wherein tracks such as When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing, Beautiful People Beautiful Problems and even the relatively well-written vocal harmonies of the closing track, Get Free, which seems to be aiming to capture a slight Radiohead vibe, are delivered with Del Rey’s horrible, breathy moaning and produced in such a way as to swamp the mix, making for some incredibly unwieldy performances of what were likely meant to be points of grace and refinement. Unfortunately, the production value and overall stylistic exploration presented across Lust For Life seldom strike any semblance of poise, which is perhaps most evident on the handful of trap-tinged cuts in the tracklisting. Undoubtedly, trap is the dominant genre of mainstream music at the moment, and it’s nothing new for a pop singer to pick up some influences from its Southern-fried flows, skittish hi-hats and grumbling sub-bass. Whilst it can be tempting to view Del Rey’s integration of trap tropes on some of these songs as merely a natural progression from the hip hop influences present on her previous output, it can also be rather easy to view tracks such as Summer Bummer with A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti as weak attempts to hop onboard the trap bandwagon. With the two rappers’ muffled ad-libs being present from the very beginning of the cut, whilst Del Rey delivers one of her most distant, inconspicuous and moany vocal performances, the singer feels like a feature on her own song at the best of times, whilst the worst of times witness not simply a lack of cohesion between the three artists, but a complete clashing of their deliveries. The transition between Del Rey’s refrain and A$AP Rocky’s first verse is so jarring as a result of just how awkwardly he hops onto the beat that the two sections almost feel like completely different songs, whilst the decision to employ Playboi Carti, one of the most uncharismatic and nondescript mumble rappers active currently, went over as clumsily as was to be expected. Even the appearance of The Weeknd on the title track, which honestly could have worked quite well if both him and Del Rey acknowledged and embraced the through-lines between their melodramatic pretences, sees both artists sacrifice chemistry and emotional potency for frailer deliveries in their upper register, completely squandering the chances of conveying a self-aware gender dynamic from the two sides of the same overly-sentimental coin. Ultimately, the one recurring musical theme across Lust For Life is one of monotony, which has always remained one of Lana Del Rey’s most glaring faults as a singer-songwriter. In the case of her newest album, however, such shortcomings take an even more hopeless turn for the worst, with even an impressive breadth of guest artists and producers seeing the record be slowly swallowed up by the colourless, humdrum atmospheres that are too often utilised on Del Rey’s music as a means of capturing a sense of moodiness without having to follow this through with appropriately dramatic performances or compelling songwriting.
With the most insufferable aspect of previous Lana Del Rey projects being her vapid lyricism, perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to Lust For Life is the extent to which it tones down on the meaningless melodrama of the musician’s previous material. This being said, it’s not as if the singer’s explorations of retro, rock and roll imagery is any less lacking in substance, rather Del Rey tends to focus on the most superficial aspects of these cultural topics without presenting any body of commentary beneath this, making for another poorly-presented appeal to old-school symbolism. With the very title of the album itself being an eponym of Iggy Pop’s seminal second collaboration with David Bowie, whilst the tracklisting is littered with passing references to various aspects of 60s and 70s culture, Del Rey seems to be under the impression that simply obsessing over a particular image will naturally capture and convey the spirit associated with it. This particular issue is arguably most apparent on the title track, in which Del Rey’s references to Iggy Pop, Billy Joel and The Shangri-Las amount to exactly that; references and nothing more. With so much of mainstream comedy nowadays being based largely on referential humour with no traditional structure in terms of a set-up and punchline, there seems to be an odd acceptance by the average consumer of media that simply mentioning things that can be recognised and attached to specific periods in cultural history is passable as a writing style, but it’s an approach that completely fails in terms of any meaningful narrative or substantial framing. To expect a pop star like Lana Del Rey to incorporate an allusion to the jazz standard Blue Skies in any exceptionally engaging manner may be asking for too much, but merely appropriating it into the title track without playing with the contextual framing at all, instead actually dumbing down the song’s original meaning, comes across as sloppy, lazy and a blatant attempt by the singer to present herself as well-cultured to perpetuate an image that she has not rightfully earned through any weighty or worthwhile writing of her own. Some of the more politically-driven songs are similarly flagrant in this regard. Del Rey’s attempt at a feminist anthem on God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It, even before listening to Lust For Life, stood out as a likely contender for an ill-conceived, half-baked track about women’s rights, given the fact that the singer’s artistry up until this point had been largely based around glamourising her submissive role in toxic relationships, which even shows up once again on Groupie Love, as Del Rey casually disregards the exploitation and abuse to which many female groupies have historically been subjected. In the case of God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It, however, the musician’s pleas to be accepted as the woman she truly is may seem empowering on the surface, but this is nevertheless framed within a state of dependency on the man, wherein he ultimately has the final decision on whether he will “let [her] in” or “leave [her] out”. When it comes to penning female empowerment pop songs, perhaps the most important point to put across is not necessarily one that demands the world to change, but one that uplifts women to take their power into their own hands and force change. When songs such as this, therefore, still paint the female character as dependent on the male and his impression of her, it’s hard to even view them as promoting strong womanhood, as opposed to simply emphasising a gender dynamic within a typical relationship song in which a person wants their partner to accept them for who they are. Although not quite as overtly self-defeating, the pseudo-uplifting resistance anthem that is the following song, When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing, which seemingly attempts to promote maintaining an optimistic front, even in divisive times such as those that the US is currently experiencing, misses the point of political songwriting in a similar manner. Once again, instead of genuinely addressing any issues, Del Rey opts for promoting an image of hope through unity and optimism, assuring that a “happy ending” will come if everyone just keeps dancing like they did during the last war. What the singer completely misses, however, is the fact that she’s attempting to promote a brighter future by ignoring glaring political issues and promising the listener that things will just miraculously get better because this is what happened the last time the world was at war, whilst not acknowledging that this tactic clearly failed given that the world is in political turmoil yet again. It’s moments such as these that render the toned-down melodrama of Lust For Life almost meaningless. After all, there’s nothing wrong with melodrama as a concept, rather it was the way in which Del Rey consistently presented it without any substance as to make it compelling. Yet, on Lust For Life, even if much of the melodrama has dissipated, the singer’s same insubstantial writing remains.
As much as I try to remain optimistic for future material from Lana Del Rey, given how strong the odd song of hers has been in the past, the artist’s inability to resolve any of her readily-apparent shortcomings as a performer, a singer, a songwriter and a lyricist dash these hopes nearly every time she unveils a new project. Oddly enough, despite it being lambasted by the minority of music critics who share my opinions on the singer, Del Rey’s last album, Honeymoon, struck me as the least intolerable full-length release of her career thus far. Although merely passable at the best of times, the presentation of many of her usual clichés was at least unobtrusive enough to not completely spoil some of the best moments in the tracklisting. The fact that Lust For Life, therefore, sees the songwriter return to ramming her superficial, soulless, insubstantial portrayal of vintage pop culture down the listener’s throat simply seems like a step in the wrong direction once again. Likewise, with the record’s length being completely unjustified given the insufficient diversity of its songwriting presentation, not to mention the fact that the host of personnel brought into play was largely wasted, Lust For Life amounts to another tiring release from Lana Del Rey. With her usual, perfunctory anachronisms being presented in just as prosaic a fashion as ever, it’s hard not to view Del Rey on Lust For Life as anything other than benighted.
The Vinyl Verdict: 3.5/10