Today’s pop industry is obsessed with two contrasting storylines—a star’s emergence from obscurity and a celebrity’s sudden crash and fall from fame. Lana Del Rey’s debut album, “Born to Die,” arrives at a time when she is at the crossroad between these narratives. Her instantaneous popularity, which she achieved from viral hits like “Video Games,” has already been compromised by shoddy live performances and critical backlash over her authenticity. The shakiness of her current musical status mirrors the nature of her new album. While early singles released on the web seemed to promise a world of retrograde beauty and femininity, her ensuing album is a hodgepodge of hits and misses. Del Rey might as well have named her album after her own fate, for the LP marks the death of a career born just yesterday.
At times, “Born to Die” acts as a tribute to the sentimentality and glamour of Old Hollywood. Singles such as “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” feature Del Rey’s low and silky croon as she references the paradigmatic heartthrob James Dean and remembers, “Singing in the old bars / Swinging with the old stars.” Adopting a vulnerable sound that manifests itself in lingered notes and seductive sighs, Del Rey manages to use otherwise trite lyrics such as “I will love you till the end of time / I would wait a million years” to enhance her nostalgia for classic romance.
Del Rey’s old-fashioned sound continues to be effective in ballads such as “Carmen” and “Born to Die.” In both songs, the singer adheres to the idea that less is more, successfully employing a low vocal range that occasionally melts into a few staccato or falsetto end notes, offering just enough structural variation and melodic surprise to create a memorable impression.
Nevertheless, the laid-back smoothness that Del Rey establishes is punctured by failed attempts at more upbeat, pop-oriented songs. In “National Anthem,” Del Rey’s awkward attempts at cutesy rap ironically realize her lyrics: “He says to ‘be cool,’ but I don’t know how yet.” Furthermore, the artist’s voice falters in “Dark Paradise,” with poor phrasing and nasal upward inflections that betray her lack of vocal experience. The whiny and prepubescent tone that is evident in these tracks overshadows any subtlety in the other tracks on “Born to Die.”
To make things even more perplexing, Del Rey’s success at channeling the bygone era of American culture is ruined by crass tracks whose lyrics flaunt a modern shallowness. On “Diet Mountain Dew” the singer abandons her sultry mood for sped up beats that are paired with Ke$ha-like lyrics about getting “low, down, and dirty.” On “Lolita,” she spells out “D-A-R-K” in the fashion of artists like Fergie and Gwen Stefani, but she also confusingly attempts to allude to literary figures like Vladimir Nabokov’s protagonist and Shakespeare’s Romeo.
“Off to the Races” is the worst of these anachronistic pairings, as its lyrics form a scattered assortment of over-the-top, clichéd lines and tasteless subject matters. The Nabokovian declaration “Light of my life / Fire of my loins” is consequently turned into meaningless buffoonery when followed by such unsavory lyrics as, “Gimme them gold coins / And I’m off to the races / Up Bacardi chases/ Chasing me all over town / Cause he knows I’m wasted.”
With the album’s tracks oscillating between moods and eras, one cannot help but wonder whether Del Rey has a clear sense of her artistic identity. Her haphazard transitions from classic to contemporary, classy to crass, and sensitive to tough show that she lacks the musical maturity necessary for crafting a cohesive album. Furthermore, the back-and-forth swings become repetitive in themselves as the music relies on the same dichotomous ideas while failing to develop more sophisticated narratives or memorable riffs.
Altogether, Del Rey’s vocal misgivings and attempted trashiness destroy her potential to be invigorating to pop music. With no one artistic vision supporting the album, the singer’s voice sounds disconnected from her own music, leaving the listener emotionally detached. For all the hype surrounding Del Rey, it wouldn’t be surprising if she leaves the popular music scene as quickly as she entered it.
—Staff writer Jennifer Soong can be reached at email@example.com.