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Lana Del Rey Defined 2019—and Her Story—With ‘Norman F***ing Rockwell!’

Her fifth album is her sweetest (and meanest) yet—and it stands tall as the year’s best

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Evil,” sings Lana Del Rey. “I’ve come to tell you that she’s evil. Most definitely.”

Yes, America, she is covering Sublime’s “Doin’ Time.” Yes, America, she is doing so on 2019’s Album of the Year.

“Evil,” sings Lana Del Rey. “Ornery, scandalous, and evil. Most definitely.”

This is the point in the video when arguably one of the biggest—and inarguably one of the most improbable—pop stars of her generation stops frolicking on the beach and supernaturally climbs out of a drive-in movie screen as a casually vengeful 50-foot queenie. She picks up a philandering crap dude’s car with one hand, raises it to eye level as the crap dude and his secret lady friend cower in terror, shakes it vigorously, and then drops it.

“The tension it’s getting hotter,” sings Lana Del Rey, belting it out just a little now, a blithe soprano swoop both ethereal and lethal. “I’d like to hold her head underwater.” No pronouns or gender roles or murder fantasies were reversed in the course of reclaiming “Doin’ Time,” one of roughly 10 billion alternative-rock songs from the ’90s in which a dude complains bitterly about a lady. The reclamation is total nonetheless.

“Me and my girl, we got this relationship,” sings Del Rey. “I love her so bad, but she treats me like shit.” Sublime’s Bradley Nowell was a little too cute to actually sing the word shit in the original, perhaps assuming, rightly, that the song would get a ton of radio play. Del Rey’s narcotized and shrewd cover is, indeed, your best shot at hearing anything from her fifth and best album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, on the radio, given that you can’t even say the album’s full title on the radio or in the paper of record. But it’s only one of roughly 10 billion highlights.

The crack of the hard K when she murmurs, “He was cool as heck” on a song called “The Next Best American Record.” The heartbreaking final ascent on the chorus when she moans, “You make me feel like there’s something that I never knew I wanted.” Her sweet resignation as she delivers the breathy titular line of “Fuck It I Love You,” over and over. Her bitter resignation as she sings, “There’s things I want to 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” over and over on a song called “Cinnamon Girl” that isn’t that song called “Cinnamon Girl.”

The gorgeous, noodly, endless coda to “Venice Bitch,” a three-minute pop song that slowly mutates to three times that length and peaks with Del Rey softly chanting, “Crimson and clover, honey / Over and over, honey / Over and over, honey / Over and over, honey.” The way a 14-track, hour-plus-long album packed with languid piano ballads ends with a lengthy, languid piano ballad called “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—but I Have It” that nonetheless drops like a bomb, the intimacy enormously painful, the hope and the danger both serenely palpable. The way the phrase white yachts both gleams and dies in her mouth. Nobody in the 2010s, in any medium, wrote about the “American Dream,” scare quotes very much included, with more cutting perception. Del Rey’s wide-eyed naivete is inseparable from her hard-nosed fatalism. She earned both the hard way, which is to say online.

Lana Del Rey kicked off the decade as a sharp but drowsy internet firestorm incarnate, her nauseatingly decadent 2012 debut album Born to Die the culmination of an extraordinarily brutal barrage of think pieces and exposés and Blog Era freak-outs with regards to her stage name, her industry connections, her shaky early live performances, her lips. Fewer non-politician humans have inspired an uglier discourse. Her breakout single, the (yes!) languid piano ballad “Video Games,” was (and remains) spectacular. But Born to Die as a whole, in its desperation to stretch from Old Hollywood lounge-pop glamour to 21st-century electro-pop torpor, groaned beneath all that weight.

Except Born to Die also spent 300 weeks on the Billboard album chart, making Del Rey only the third female artist in history to do so, alongside Adele and Carole King. She flirted—briefly, via a dreamy Cedric Gervais remix of that album’s “Summertime Sadness”—with vaguely conventional EDM-ingenue glory. But she was destined for weirder, nervier, and somehow even bigger things. Her next three albums—2014’s grittier Ultraviolence, 2015’s sleepier Honeymoon, 2017’s moderately cheerier Lust for Life—blazed a singular trail even as fellow pop stars from Lorde to Grimes to FKA Twigs to lately even Taylor Swift sought to intersect with it. Del Rey has always been a brazen and bizarre and even clumsy jumble of styles and eras, but she is also, increasingly, a genre, if not a whole lifestyle, unto herself.

She is also, by her own admission, evil. Ornery, scandalous, and evil. Most definitely. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is largely helmed by mercifully restrained superstar producer Jack Antonoff, but its all-universe highlight, as flaunted right there on the opener and title track, is the line “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.” It’s as sublime a crap-dude excoriation as this century has yet produced. Picture “Ether,” but a love song. Second verse:

Goddamn, man-child
You act like a kid even though you stand six-foot-two
Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all
You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you
But I don’t get bored, I just see it through
Why wait for the best when I could have you?

Man-children have infested her songs from the very beginning: “Go play your video game,” goes the tender refrain of “Video Games,” after all. Del Rey’s gloomy refusal to hew to typical pop-star empowerment narratives—her devotion to the rhapsodize-a-clearly-lousy-boyfriend archetype, as disarmingly vivid on Born to Die’s “Off to the Races” as it is on Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s melancholic Leonard Cohen afterworld “Mariners Apartment Complex”—is both what makes her great and makes her, even now, a little maddening. The best albums of 2019, even at their sweetest and most delicate, couldn’t help but be a little antagonistic, and pessimistic, and romantic in an alarmingly hostile sort of way. But Norman Fucking Rockwell! rules them all, in that it’s somehow both the sweetest and—when it has to be, and by frightening orders of magnitude—the meanest.

Those various man-children, as smitten by them as Del Rey may appear to be, have never defined her. (“I’m your man,” goes the tender refrain of “Mariners Apartment Complex.”) Instead, amid a fresh burst of defiance and a heightened Laurel Canyon–poet command, she’s fully mastered the art of defining them. The Album of the Year, then, is also, in its precise and loving way, a scathing indictment. You’re so vain, fellas: You probably think these songs aren’t about you.

For their first date, he took her to a vegan macrobiotic restaurant. From there, the very famous thinking man’s dance-music bro known as Moby and the not-yet-infamous young singer-songwriter not yet known as Lana Del Rey repaired to Moby’s swank penthouse in the El Dorado building on Central Park West. Five separate balconies, in this apartment. He showed her all five. Del Rey, then still known as Lizzy Grant, was impressed, or at least she joked about getting hired as a nanny, or maybe just pitching a tent.

It was 2006. “During dinner, she told me she was a musician,” he recalls, in his 2019 memoir, Then It All Fell Apart, whose title counts as foreshadowing. “So I asked, ‘Will you play me some of your music?’”

“Sure, do you have a piano?”

“Yes, back on the second floor,” I said.

“Floors in an apartment.” She shook her head. “Moby you know you’re the man.”

“Ha, thanks,” I said.

“No, not like that. You’re a rich WASP from Connecticut and you live in a five-level penthouse.

You’re ‘the Man.’ As in, ‘stick it to the Man.’ As in the person they guillotine in the revolution.”

I didn’t know if she was insulting me but I decided to take it as a compliment.

Not a compliment. The Lana Del Rey song “Moby, You Know You’re the Man (As in, ‘Stick It to the Man’)” has been stuck in my head for most of 2019 despite not existing. Their date ended without incident; the nascent relationship apparently did, also. You may recall that Then It All Fell Apart—which is not Moby’s first memoir—is a perils-of-fame situation that also includes his thoughts on dating a frighteningly young Natalie Portman, who felt compelled to clarify that “I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating, because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me.” Goddamn, man-child. Moby is not, at this moment, canceled—that’s not a real thing—but tattoos aside, he’s keeping a real low profile. It’s for the best, for everybody.

The blithe conclusion here is that Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the guillotine, and constitutes Lana Del Rey’s wondrous and crushing revenge on everybody for everything. But it’s never that simple, with her, with anybody. Better to say that this album is the basket, tenderly cradling her muse’s head even if it’s, y’know, severed. The album’s finest sustained moment, in fact, might be the crushingly fragile “Love Song,” which dials the malevolence down to the bare minimum: “Ohhhhhh, be my once in a lifetime / Lyin’ on your chest / In my party dress / I’m a fuckin’ mess, but I.” She doesn’t finish the thought. She doesn’t have to.

But in 2019, the most infectious aspect of this album was, indeed, the elegant malevolence, the sense of scare quotes “love”—both minor and major, both past and present tense—as something you survive. Jenny Lewis’s fantastic country-glam opus On the Line opens with (yes!) a languid piano ballad called (yes!!) “Heads Gonna Roll,” which chronicles a romantic misadventure with a familiar sort of hyper-detailed dissatisfaction:

Took a little trip up north
In a borrowed convertible red Porsche
With a narcoleptic poet from Duluth
And we disagreed about everything
From Elliott Smith to Grenadine
He fell asleep and I put up the roof

The next line is, “And he took me to a graveyard / I thought he’d kill me there,” by the way. (He kisses her instead.)

Billie Eilish, every fearful adult’s favorite gleeful teenage pop sensation, brought us “Bad Guy,” which kicks off like a parody of early lovestruck LDR (“So you’re a tough guy / Like it really rough guy / Just can’t get enough guy / Chest always so puffed guy”) but ends with her own version of an “I’m your man” declaration: “I’m the bad guy / Duh.” (Eilish recently twisted the knife for all your fearful adults by admitting she didn’t know who Van Halen was.) Megan Thee Stallion, meanwhile, flipped Drake-style mooniness like a turtle on “Best You Ever Had”: “He say he feel intimidated when he talk to me / I got that hardcore but he want that R&B.” And emotionally hardcore R&B conceptualist Jamila Woods, on a song dedicated to fellow poet Sonia Sanchez, purged a toxic relationship with joyful-sounding relief but no wistfulness whatsoever: “It was bad / It was bad / It was bad / It was bad.”

If it’s pure vengeance you desire, delivered in the most buoyant and triumphant manner possible, the Welsh Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly’s “Old Man” is your ticket, and definitely somebody’s funeral: “Oh are you scared of me, old man? / Or are you scared of what I’ll do? / You grabbed me with an open hand / The world is grabbin’ back at you.” Her great 2019 album Beware of the Dogs goes to both much brighter and much darker places; the equally fantastic fuzz-pop band Charly Bliss somehow visited both on the same song, “Chatroom,” a meditation on sexual assault that isn’t willing to be meditative at all: “Simply put,” singer Eva Hendricks told Jezebel, “It’s a colossal ‘fuck you’ and a celebration of reaching the point of a ‘fuck you’ that isn’t diluted by self-blame or apologies.”

Lana Del Rey is less apt to draw straight biographical lines even in her most direct songs, as shown by her odd Twitter spat with the revered NPR critic Ann Powers, who wrote the most thoughtful and openhearted deep dive into Norman Fucking Rockwell! but somehow triggered Del Rey’s ire anyway: “To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me,” she tweeted. “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” (Given the endless volumes of ridiculously toxic shit written about LDR in the past 10 years or so, it’s dismaying that a piece as excellent and sensitive as Powers’s was the one to trigger a reaction.) “I make sure I know what my story is,” Del Rey later clarified to the L.A. Times’s Molly Lambert. “That’s why I get mad if I read something that seems off. Because I’m so sure of my story.”

The trick, then, with a song as alarmingly frail as Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s “Happiness Is a Butterfly,” is to reconcile what she wants you to know with what she knows you’ll never know, even when she renders her pain as explicitly as possible:

If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst
That can happen to a girl who’s already hurt?
I’m already hurt
If he’s as bad as they say, then I guess I’m cursed
Looking into his eyes, I think he’s already hurt
He’s already hurt

That one shows up late on the album, before “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing” but after yet another of the album’s most striking peaks. “The Greatest” makes small differences (the slightest crack of electricity, plus an honest-to-god guitar solo) sound positively massive, and it is carefully built around yet another eminently quotable bit of lively fatalism: “The culture is lit / And if this is it / Then I had a ball.” The slow-burn coda is a shocker in slow motion. Lana’s voice, never an outlandishly forceful thing, powers down to a slurry near whisper:

If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doin’ nothin’ the most of all
Hawaii just missed that fireball
L.A.’s in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song
Oh! The livestream’s almost on

The magic trick is that “Kanye West is blond and gone” might be the most incendiary line on any album released in 2019, an outlandish provocation disguised as a burbling ASMR aside. “Here’s the thing: I don’t want to elicit a response,” Lana told The New York Times’s Joe Coscarelli, when asked whether she’d heard from Kanye. “You never feel better for having written something like that.”

But you might very well feel better after hearing it. Not much about this year qualified as soothing, artistically or otherwise, and what makes Norman Fucking Rockwell! so essential is that you can never quite tell whether any one song or individual line is driven by ecstasy or rage, all-consuming love or its all-consuming opposite. You’ve just got to work it out for yourself, and maybe, by and large, keep it to yourself. The news was all bad, definitely. But you can hardly blame the poetry.