Lana Del Rey’s New Album is an Overhyped Bore

There’s this popular and annoying Twitter account called So Sad Today that posts depressive “deep” aphorisms that are clearly engineered to be retweeted by people who are feeling vaguely down and can’t articulate why — stuff like “i love when i’m not awake” and “just got a terrible feeling that I exist.” The account is run by Melissa Broder, an educated woman who is married, lives in LA, and has published four books. I don’t question the validity of her experience with mental illness, but I do find the way this account portrays depression to be rather distasteful. It’s this cutesy, faux-self-deprecating tone that many use on the internet, and it glorifies depression by turning it into a blandly relatable performance that doesn’t contain any real truth.

Lana Del Rey is the So Sad Today of musicians. Her new album,  Norman Fucking Rockwell, appeals to the same audience of disaffected young women, and it taps into very contemporary feelings of nostalgia and anxiety about the future. It’s a huge, ambitious album, and it has an undeniably appealing sound with its piano plus string arrangements and Del Rey’s vocals, which are gorgeous and full of longing, similar to Hope Sandoval’s. Despite these obvious positives, and some good songs like “Mariners Apartment Complex,” I find myself loathing this album because everything feels so fake and performatively sad.

Admittedly, this might be my contrarian instincts kicking in in response to the wave of hype surrounding this album, which has frankly been preposterous. But I can’t buy into this material, which is presented with such seriousness while taking on this silly and cliché 50s Americana aesthetic. Del Rey can sing and back herself with good production, but it never becomes anything to me other than some vapid tunes done in a style that has been performed by countless much more interesting artists. This nearly 70-minute album does not contain a single original thought or sound, yet it’s presented as this majestic, novel commentary on American life.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is so transparently ambitious and trying to be a Great American Album that it becomes unbelievably tedious despite its beautiful sound. A song like “Venice Bitch,” for instance, has no real reason to be nine minutes long except that this is an epic album that needs epic songs. Its long instrumental section tries to be mesmerizing and psychedelic but is really just some pointless noodling– it’s length for the sake of length. That song ends up being a microcosm of this album’s entire contrived self-indulgent vibe. Del Rey now believes she is an artist who has Something to Say about America and culture and everything else, so the album drags on and on with samey songs that are full of banal observations about how great things used to be, how she has no fucks to give, etc. There isn’t really poetry or depth in these lyrics, most of which sound like they were algorithmically generated to maximize likes on Instagram. Anyone pretending that these songs are some really deep exploration of the American Dream is out of their mind. I’ve read fortune cookies that had more insight.

What is maybe most frustrating about this album is that it’s totally in my musical wheelhouse as someone who really likes this type of nostalgic, emotive pop. It irritates me, probably irrationally, that Lana Del Rey is the artist being celebrated for this style when she is bringing nothing new to the table. Widowspeak’s Expect the Best did everything this album is trying to do in half the length and I might have been the only person to chart it on my year-end list. Fiona Apple makes music that is somewhat reminiscent of this album, but she puts authentic feeling and experiences into her songs. When Del Rey sings, I don’t get that — it all feels like a character and a performance, and she’s singing these lyrics because she knows people will relate to them and like them, not because she feels them. This entire album is such a surface-level exploration of subjects that have been covered so much better by other art. You could probably re-read most of The Great Gatsby in the time it takes to listen to this thing and be much better off.

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that this is the album people have decided is the greatest thing ever in the social media era. When people are brought up on the idea of likes and popularity being equal to quality, it makes sense that they all go wild for pandering middlebrow nonsense like this. And when writers and listeners are all desperate to seem positive about pop music to show how not-snobby they are, they convince themselves that Lana’s vacuous lyrics about walking on beaches in California are the pinnacle of the form. Meanwhile, the music that really does have something to say often goes ignored in this social media driven cultural monopoly held by mainstream pop. Norman Fucking Rockwell being a boring album isn’t what bothers me so much: it’s that it represents a tipping point in our culture where every big pop album with some hype behind it is lapped up uncritically by maniacal fans and celebrated for accomplishing the bare minimum artistically. Our standards should be much higher than this.

January Music Round-Up

January is typically a slow month for new music releases, but a few in the last month piqued my interest. I’d say it’s a pretty good start, mostly since I can’t remember any albums released last January and at least a couple from this month will probably be in my rotation throughout the year. I’ll go alphabetically, so as not to disorient any readers.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
The Welsh singer’s second album comes after a tour with St. Vincent, and it’s easy to see why the two hit the road together: Le Bon covers similar territory to Annie Clark, playing songs that sound somewhat coy but have a dark sense of humor and are prone to exploding into blasts of noisy guitar. Le Bon doesn’t quite have the ambitious arrangements that St. Vincent does, but her songs are more personal and allow her to develop a distinct and quirky persona throughout the album. Le Bon’s voice garners fairly obvious comparisons to Nico and it gives Cyrk more of a throwback feel that reminds me a lot of self-titled era Velvet Underground (if Nico had stayed with the band and provided all the vocals).  Despite the comparisons, I think Le Bon is a unique voice and talent, with a knack for clever lyrics and finding just the right place in a song to add some spice to the arrangement with guitar. Cyrk was the album I listened to the most in January and I anticipate listening to it throughout the rest of the year.

Track you should legally obtain: “Fold the Cloth”

Chairlift – Something

This New York duo, comprising singer Carolyn Polachek and instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly broke out slightly a few years ago when their song “Bruises” was featured on an iPod commercial. Being featured on an iPod commercial usually isn’t usually a good sign for me, but I’m surprisingly enjoying their sophomore effort Something. The band’s sound is defined by their love of cheesy 80’s synthesizer and electronic sounds, along with Polachek’s vocals which tend to hover and remain detached from her musical surroundings. The band is at their best when making goofy, off-beat pop songs like “Amanaemonesia,” which is apparently about a made-up disease and “Sidewalk Safari” which fronts its corny instrumentation with a humorously disturbing story of running down someone with a car. For the most part, Something accomplishes what it sets out to do: It’s an odd and catchy indie-pop album that has gotten multiple songs stuck in my head constantly.

Track you should legally obtain: “Amanaemonesia”

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings started as more of an indie pop outfit, but frontman Dylan Baldi decided to take things in a different direction for their second album Attack on Memory. In this case, the album title is literal, as the band sounds completely different thanks to a new aggressive approach inspired by bands like Wipers. The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose production I am a notable sucker for, and its sound is refreshingly straight-forward rock, with none of the annoying affectations that are so present in indie music today. Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings is held back by Baldi himself: His adolescent singing style is grating to me and his attempts at sounding “aggressive” come off more as a kid playing dress-up than an artist who is experiencing legitimate angst. My favorite parts of Attack on Memory are when he’s singing pop songs with a bit of rock edge (“Stay Useless”) or when he fades into the background a bit, like the 9-minute “Wasted Days” which features an extended instrumental section, becoming this album’s “Youth of America.” Despite my issues with some of the singing, I respect Attack on Memory for being something different, both for the band and current indie music as a whole.

Track you should legally obtain: “Wasted Days”

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The Swedish sister pair of Johanna and Clara Söderberg plays a familiar brand of rustic folk that is obviously indebted to bands like Fleet Foxes (they initially got attention through a Fleet Foxes cover posted on youtube). They have a phenomenal gift for vocal harmonies and for the most part it’s hard (even for me) not to like them a little bit, given their obvious skills and youth. Most of The Lion’s Roar follows the formula they do well, with folk songs with sweet harmonies that rise into climactic choruses. At times I think the songs can linger a bit too long, and, even though they’re not signed to the label, they sometimes fall into the trap of sounding like a generic over-serious Saddle Creek band, right down to the obligatory Conor Oberst cameo in the final track. I imagine for a lot of people that love this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve folk, The Lion’s Roar will be one of their favorites of the year, but for me it’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable collection of songs.

Track you should legally obtain: “Emmylou”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey sparked a billion think-pieces when she exploded last year with the viral hit “Video Games.” The way with which Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, transformed herself into a 50’s-type character irked a lot of people apparently, and it culminated in a Saturday Night Live performance that was the subject of a vast amount of media scrutiny. Personally, I don’t really have anything against her (a musician changing her identity to gain pop stardom? THE HORROR!) but I generally enjoyed following all the inevitable hype/backlash media cycles for the last few months. Now her debut album finally drops, and while it contains the still-excellent “Video Games”, nothing else approaches that level. The title track comes closest (mostly because it’s basically the same song), but the rest of Born to Die contains forgettable tracks in a similar vein or even worse, disastrous attempts at more up-tempo pop tracks like the trainwreck “Off to the Races,” which sounds almost like self-parody. For the most part, the biggest question Born to Die raises is how something this dull and uninteresting created so much passionate discussion from either side.

Track you should legally obtain: “Video Games” if for some reason you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned as I attempt to keep up to date with new music throughout the year.