Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ Is the Next Best American Record
Lana Del Rey built a career from a single-handed synthesis of summertime vibes and sadness by crafting indie-adjacent songs with pop sensibilities, and straining American nostalgia and luxury through a dreamily despondent filter. After five albums of melancholy subject matter and sultry vocals, “Norman Fucking Rockwell” may just be Lana’s magnum opus. “NFR” isn’t necessarily a change for the artist, but more of a purposeful channeling of her signature aesthetic. Even so, it’s a bit more complex than ever before.
Composed mostly of instrumentally minimalist, narratively rich, and vocally-focused songs produced by Jack Antonoff, “NFR” is hopeless romance, starlit L.A. party-hopping, and nightgown poetry. If it weren’t for the toss-away millennial vernacular — i.e. “it’s lit,” “fresh out of fucks,” “hit me up,” etc. — one might be inclined to believe it was recorded in the ‘70s. It’s an album that’s sweetly anachronistic, but in a poignant way that couples well with the context and subject matter. “NFR” isn’t a caricature of pointed sadness through a sepia-tone Instagram filter, it’s a dimly-lit, soul-pouring mourning for fantasies of love, apocalyptic headlines, and a deconstruction of American iconography. All of the songs sound like they’re played during the last call at a townie bar, and you can almost imagine them being composed in the afterglow of a night out, just as the sun’s coming up. “I watch the skies get light as I write,” LDR sings on “How to Disappear.”
The title track sets the pace. Its introductory strings sound like the beginning of a classic Hollywood film, and serve to set the stage for the piano bar melody that immediately follows. “Goddamn, man-child,” she spits as she describes an immature lover; a pretentious poet who “colors [her] blue,” Lana sings in her signature brooding vocals. “Mariner’s Apartment Complex” follows with a sweet piano melody and paper-thin acoustic strings. It’s the first single, and continues the story of the opener by describing a partner and others who, “mistook [her] kindness for weakness.” Nautical imagery abounds as she offers hope, “You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again.”
“Venice Bitch” is the second single. It’s primarily made up of soft strings, synth, and light percussion, with whisper-sung choruses, “Oh God, miss you on my lips / It’s me, your little Venice bitch / On the stoop with the neighborhood kids / Callin’ out, bang bang, kiss kiss.” In the post-chorus, she portrays a deceptive fantasy, “You’re beautiful and I’m insane / We’re American-made.” Lana elaborates further by describing a yearning for, “Hallmark / one dream, one life, one lover / Paint me happy in blue / Norman Rockwell.” It’s a thematically-packed song which delves into quintessential American imagery — “Me myself, I like diamonds / My baby, crimson and clover.” She’s dissatisfied with her partner’s artistic portrayal of her in a depressing light. The song is almost 10 minutes in length, and eventually features a long synthesizer solo and crashing hats.
“Fuck It I Love You” is a song which melds dark subject matter of drug addiction with romantic pining. “Doin’ Time” is a Sublime cover, which is, in turn, a cover of “Summertime” by George Gershwin. It doesn’t add much to the record, thematically, but is on-brand for Lana. “Love Song” is a pretty straightforward song, said to be written in half an hour, which fantasizes about romance, fast cars, and fame.
“Cinnamon Girl” begins with restrained piano keys, but incorporates samples, synth, and hip-hop percussion. It’s a song that describes an unhealthy romance with a drug-addicted partner. The chorus is devastating in its poignance, “There’s things I wanna say to you, but I’ll just let you live / Like if you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did / There’s things I wanna talk about, but better not to give / But if you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did.”
“How to Disappear” delivers soft vocals over piano and light percussion. Lana describes crying on shoulders while her lover compartmentalizes sentimentality in more masculine-coded expression of fighting and drinking, “Haven’t seen you ’round here lately / All of the guys tell me lies, but you don’t / You just crack another beer / And pretend that you’re still here.” The third verse is a snapshot of present day in the “California sun.”
For an album rife with references to Hollywood and L.A. living, “California” is pretty light on the references to the Pacific Coast Highway and movie stars. Lana recounts a story of reading a love interest’s letter, “You said to a friend that you wish you were doing better.” Lana describes holding him in her arms, saying, “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are / When you’re lying in my arms,” and that if he’s ever in California, she’ll pick him up, buy him magazines, and throw him a party. “The Next Best American Record” describes a love interest and how he used to dance to Led Zeppelin records. She reminisces over smoking cigarettes with him and how they were mutually “obsessed with writing the next best American record.” It’s a soft song with verses underscored by plucked guitar, and hip-hop influenced drums on the choruses.
“The Greatest” is another song about nostalgia, missing rock & roll, New York, and how things used to be, “I just want shit to feel like it used to.” It’s a song that yearns to be born in a different era. All the same, “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball,” feels a little hollow in its application of recently antiquated slang. Lana light-heartedly describes reading apocalyptic headlines, “Hawaii just missed that fireball, L.A. is in flames‚ it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone, ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song / I hope the live stream’s almost on.”
“Bartender” is a story about loving a “tender” bartender. Lana describes the poetry inside of her as being “like a warm gun.” “Happiness Is a Butterfly” is a reference to a quote, one that’s attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, but whose origins are ultimately unclear. The song and quote are about how happiness and butterflies always escape just as you try to catch them. “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have” makes reference to reading Slyvia Plath poetry and writing with “blood on the walls” when you’re out of ink. It’s about internal struggle between fantasy, desire, and reality, “I was reading Slim Aarons and I got to thinking that I thought / Maybe I’d get less stressed if I was tested less like all of these debutantes / Smiling for miles in pink dresses and high heels on white yachts / But I’m not, baby, I’m not / No, I’m not, that, I’m not.” She says, “Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not / But at best, I can say I’m not sad / ‘Cause hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.”
“Norman Fucking Rockwell” is a conceptually complex record, whose nostalgic themes of idealized romance, glamorous Hollywood lifestyles, and American iconography feel like blissful dreams in comparison to the modern context Lana pulls the listener into. Her narrative lens approaches these fantasies, never failing to mention their incongruities with reality, but a desire for them, nonetheless. She describes life and love with men who see her through a fantasized vision, parties where you change dresses and become someone else, relationships that are more harmful than they are blissful, and doom-ridden news stories. She offers solace for her lovers, a yearning to take care of them, hold them, and buy them their “favorite drink off the top shelf,” but continually expects heartbreak for herself. She references ‘70s songs and albums, famous American poets, artists, and photographers, and digs deep. It isn’t a rejection of Americana, love, and fantasy, but an unrelenting stare at the poetic tragedies latent in reality. She isn’t sad, she’s hopeful, even if it’s dangerous.
“Norman Fucking Rockwell” is available Aug. 30 on Apple Music.