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Lana Del Rey Is the Benevolent Spirit Guide of Our Times

With ‘Norman F-----g Rockwell,’ her best album yet, the singer has adapted, evolved, and changed along with the world. But there is a radical kind of tenderness now present in her music, a preserved innocence that once seemed irrevocably lost.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the mesmerizing music video for Lana Del Rey’s new song “The Greatest,” our heroine is singing and swaying in a room that’s somewhere between 90210’s Peach Pit and the Bang Bang Bar from Twin Peaks. The bar is neon lit and mostly empty, save for a few grizzled old bikers staring searchingly into the carbonated abyss of their brews. “I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go,” Del Rey sings, “Dennis’s last stop before Kokomo.” Accompanied by little more than an elegiac piano, her voice is as billowing, tragic, and incongruously beautiful as a malfunctioning parachute mid-fall.

Dennis never made it to “Kokomo.” The middle Wilson brother drowned drunk in the Marina Del Rey in December 1983, when he was 39, five years before his former band returned to the charts with a vacation novelty single from the soundtrack of a Tom Cruise movie. Doomed, gone too soon, and briefly acquainted with Charles Manson, Dennis Wilson is a natural choice for Lana Del Rey’s favorite Beach Boy. At the bar where she’s performing in “The Greatest,” his groovy “Pacific Ocean Blues” is on the jukebox, along with some other sonic offerings from the beyond: Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye,” Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” Sing it with me: Sometimes you wanna go where everybody on the jukebox is dead. Like the rest of her magnificent new album Norman Fucking Rockwell, the video has the eerie feel of a transmission from some in-between zone, a surfside way station between life and whatever the hell comes next. Call it Lana in the Bardo.

Actually, don’t call it that: Norman Fucking Rockwell just might be one of the best album titles there ever was. It’s sacred and profane, classical and modern, hilarious but also dead fucking serious—every good thing that the 34-year-old singer/songwriter born Elizabeth Grant has gradually evolved into over the past decade. Rockwell himself would envy the portrait she paints on the opening title track, so precise yet comprehensive is its rendering of the contemporary American every-male:

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 you through
Why wait for the best when I could have you?

Goddamn, indeed. He sounds like the type of guy who might be shocked to learn the beautiful woman he’s been hanging around with can write such artfully cutting lyrics—that the girl he’s been gazing at has not only been gazing back but also taking notes. (“Your poetry’s bad, and you blame the news,” she croons, a line that deserves to go down with the chorus of “You’re So Vain” as one of pop music’s most elegantly emasculating one-liners.) An hour later, on the other stunning song bookending this record, Del Rey will be rid of him but she’ll still be writing, alone and possessed in a kind of fevered, creative frenzy. “Writing in blood on my walls,” she sings, “’Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad.” The most withering lines on Norman Fucking Rockwell are reminders of an age-old truth: A journal is a dangerous thing for a woman like her to have—but she has one.

This isn’t the first portrait of a man to exist in a Lana Del Rey song, of course, but the earlier ones now feel like preliminary sketches in comparison. “My old man is a bad man / But I can’t deny the way he holds my hand,” she sang in “Off to the Races,” a Lolita-meets–Bonnie and Clyde reverie off her 2012 debut album Born to Die, its production as ornate and gilded as a Blingee filter. Born to Die remains Del Rey’s most commercially successful record—it recently became one of only three albums by a female artist to ever spend 300 weeks on the Billboard album chart—but even in the forgiving eye of retrospect it remains her most stylistically confused. The producers she worked with on that record, like pop and hip-hop studio wiz Emile Haynie, did not yet seem to know what to do with a living, self-contradicting anachronism like Del Rey, a millennial woman who could vamp like Rita Hayworth in Gilda but swear like the sailors who loved her. Seldom was her voice given the space on Born to Die to languish as it did on her signature single “Video Games,” and she often seemed like she was straining to keep up with the tempo of the songs’ hip-hop-inflected beats.

One of the smartest things she did on her excellent follow-up record Ultraviolence was to link up with Dan Auerbach, frontman of the blues-rockers the Black Keys. Auerbach paired Del Rey’s voice with woozy, psychedelic guitars and vintage California cool, allowing her to relax into a kind of meandering, poetic lyrical style that she’s continued to hone. “Get a little bit of bourbon in ya / You get a little bit suburban and go crazy,” she drawled, her American dream curdling into something more like a nightmare.

Her work with Auerbach anticipates her winning collaboration with Jack Antonoff on Norman Fucking Rockwell, another producer content to give Del Rey the time and space to stretch out. But there’s a real craftsmanship to these songs, too—a hearkening back to the glory days of Carole King, Leonard Cohen, and even Elton John. Improbably, given that last sentence, this is also an album that features a straightforward Sublime cover, and even more improbably, the Sublime cover works. Del Rey’s mood board is more varied than ever, but it all coheres within the dark, hypnotic magic of her songs.

Del Rey’s 2011 debut single, “Video Games,” introduced her as an old soul, longing in the age of the right-swipe for lasting romance and deep connection—or at least a boyfriend who would pause a Halo marathon long enough to hold a decent conversation. She seemed, ill-fatedly, a woman born into the wrong era. And then, suddenly, she blinked awake from her Old Hollywood dream and found herself in this strange moment, right here and now.

Before I watched the video for “The Greatest,” YouTube made me sit through a commercial. “In five seconds, you can skip this ad,” a man told me. “What you can’t skip? Climate change. But here is something you can do right now”—five seconds had passed, so I skipped the ad. Pop-up notifications informed me about one coast being ravaged by fire, the other—what a cruel cosmic joke—pummeled with water. I thought of an article I’d recently read by the journalist Sarah Jaffe, who captured an ineffable feeling at the edge of my perception I’d not yet been able to articulate. “What Jasper Bernes called the ‘awful temporality’ of the climate crisis means that we are grieving things we haven’t yet lost,” she writes, “watching futures slip away while the sun shines on a lovely summer, having to go on with life because we are too far away physically to stop the crisis with our bodies.” Or, as Lana Del Rey sings, minding that poignant gap between present tense and premature elegy, “The culture is lit, and I had a ball.”

No one I know can get over this song. I am not yet in a place where I can listen to it without breaking out in goosebumps. To be alive right now is to be confronted, over and over and over each day, with simple reminders that we are hurtling toward some vague man-made catastrophe though no one knows when and how and why. To hear such an emotionally honest torch song about how it feels to endure such existentially bizarre circumstances has provided, at least for some of us, a feeling something like mass relief. “If this is it, I’m signing off,” Del Rey sings, like an Instagram Live broadcast from the end of the world, a chillingly imaginable thing. “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot.” In one of her older songs that would have meant something entirely different. But, like so many of us, she’s had to adapt, evolve, and change.

On her previous album, 2017’s Lust for Life, Del Rey began exploring political consciousness, albeit in a very Lana Del Rey way, writing songs with titles like “God Bless America—and All the Beautiful Women in It.” In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, she found herself rethinking some of her imagery, too: “I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing ‘Born to Die,’” she said. “I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013.” It was an odd thrill to watch her evolving so transparently in real time. “Change is a powerful thing,” she sang toward the end of the record. “I feel it coming in me.”

It’s not that Norman Fucking Rockwell is a protest record—like Del Rey’s previous releases, most of its songs are about the agony and ecstacy of romance. But there are larger forces just outside the frames of these songs, too, and they occasionally slip into view. “When everyone’s talking, you can make a stand,” she sings on “Mariners Apartment Complex,” a gorgeous, Leonard Cohen–nodding song that ebbs and swells like the sea. The troubled lover in “Cinnamon Girl” feels, intentionally, extra disturbing in the wake of recent cultural reckonings about sexual violence: “If you hold me without hurting me / You’ll be the first who ever did.” Amid all the chaos and hurricanes, though, there is a radical kind of tenderness now present in Del Rey’s music, a preserved innocence that once seemed irrevocably lost. Even if it’s only temporary, she reminds us, love can build shelter from the storm. One of the most heartbreaking songs she’s ever written is the simple, wrenching piano ballad “Love Song.” She asks in a yearning, childlike voice, “Is it safe, is it safe, to just be who we are?” When she doesn’t get an answer, she asks again, this time with a little more of an urgent tremble in her voice.

Now that she’s settled into her own, languorous tempo, Del Rey’s albums can sometimes feel too long or repetitive. Not this one. What makes Norman Fucking Rockwell her best record is not just the strength of the songwriting but also the sequencing: It moves through a subtle but stirring arc and accumulates a creeping sense of dread. The last few songs are downright haunting, and among the best Del Rey has ever written. “Bartender” sounds, at once, like a music box and a night terror. “Happiness Is a Butterfly” reveals what at first looks like a maudlin song title to be half of a crushing lyric (“... I try to catch it like every night.”) During the chorus of “Butterfly,” there’s a rising tension and a percussive grain to her vocals that I’ve never quite heard from her, and all throughout Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey stretches her voice in new ways. One of the wisest production choices she and Antonoff make is to accompany her frequently with piano, which until now has been an underutilized instrument in her music. Maybe it works because in so many ways her voice is a piano—sonorous and rich, heavy at times and at others weightlessly plinking, an orderly commingling of sudden slashes of dark and light.

The final song on Norman Fucking Rockwell is a sparse, six-minute dirge called “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—but I Have It.” It was recorded the first day Del Rey and Antonoff worked together: As she recently told The New York Times, she asked Antonoff, “‘Would you mind recording me live, to no track, singing this song that I’ve journaled called “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing”?’ And I really liked how he captured my voice without instruments.” Del Rey is mic’d close enough that you can hear her short intakes of breath, and the whole track has a disarming intimacy about it. She ponders the leisurely poise of the smiling debutantes in old Slim Aarons photographs, the kind of image that might have appeared in the video for “Video Games.” “But I’m not, baby, I’m not / No, I’m not that, I’m not,” she sings. In that moment of refusal, Del Rey’s slow, gradual evolution from object to subject is complete. She’s become something even weirder and more defiantly anachronistic than the Rita Hayworth of the blogosphere, and a species even more endangered in 2019: a poet.

“Hello, it’s the most famous woman you know on the iPad,” Del Rey sings. “Calling from beyond the grave, I just wanna say, ‘Hi, Dad.’” It’s the kind of bizarro-brilliant line that would make Leonard Cohen smile; wherever he is now, Del Rey seems to be in communion with his bleak humor and wisdom. There she sways in that biker bar at the edge of the world, somehow smiling brightly as she sings her in memoriam song for just about everything. Against all odds, Lana Del Rey has transformed into the benevolent spirit guide of our times, a Glinda the Good Witch for the apocalypse. She knows as well as anybody that we’re already too gone to get back to the garden. But maybe she can at least get us as far as Kokomo.