Review: Lana Del Rey Shines On Refreshing ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’

Lana Del Rey began the Norman Fucking Rockwell era almost an entire year ago when she released both “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch” in September 2018. They came just over a year after her 2017 album, Lust For Life, and indicated a continuation of some of the sounds we heard on that record. While Lust For Life offered everything from hip-hop to Old Hollywood cinema, mixing various styles from her past with new territory for Lana, our newest album is much more focused. Norman Fucking Rockwell expands upon the last record’s more adult-contemporary, folk-inspired sound, building on a 1970s vibe yet planting it firmly in the 21st century. Indeed, the album even features a leftover from Lust For Life, suggesting the continuity between the two albums.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is at once rich and layered. Its sound will appeal to people from older generations, or those who grew up on music from decades past. It’s organic, highlighting plenty of acoustic guitar and piano, as well as horns and strings, and occasionally synths and even harp. The music comes from real instruments, and the effect is an album that feels more old-fashioned and timeless.

Not that it doesn’t sound modern, too. Lana’s lyrics are more profane than ever, and she sings about livestreams and issues impacting our world today. This is also the most playful Lana has sounded since Born To Die, her lyrics often teetering into humorous territory. Just look at the opening track and the “man-child” Lana describes. Even her sad songs, like “How To Disappear,” don’t feel as low as before. Instead, there’s a glimmer of hope and strength here. Indeed, the album ends on a hopeful note with its darkly optimistic closing track. If the music is often like those intimate moments on Lust For Life, the lyrics and imagery are often comparable to Born To Die.

In contrast to Lust For Life, which featured a number of guest artists – a first for a Lana album – Norman Fucking Rockwell is all Lana. Her key collaborator is Jack Antonoff, who co-wrote 10 of the 14 songs with Lana. Jack also played an array of instruments and helped in production, engineering, and mixing. The album is primarily a partnership between Lana and Jack. However, Lana also worked with longtime collaborator Rick Nowels, who co-wrote three of the songs, as well as Zachary Daves, who co-wrote “California.” One of the songs – “Doin’ Time” – is a cover; Lana included covers on her albums Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, ending both albums with one.

Given the small group of collaborators, Norman Fucking Rockwell is a cohesive album, and if you like settling into one mood or musical style for an hour or more, this is the record for you. That’s both its merit and its downfall. While the album is beautiful, charming, and masterfully done, it can also feel a bit monotonous. If you’re not in the right mood for it, the songs can start to lag toward the middle of the record, getting a tad boring as you keep hoping for a change of pace. Most of the songs are a comfortable mid- to low-tempo, which is pretty standard for Lana. But at times, you can’t help but wish she’d throw in something a bit more energetic.

That complaint notwithstanding, Norman Fucking Rockwell is an excellent set of songs. Lana Del Rey sounds comfortable, confident, and content. The music here is self-assured, sometimes playful, and always candid. It feels like a culmination of all Lana has released so far, and it’s nice to hear her music sounding so relaxed. If you’re in the right mood for it, Norman Fucking Rockwell is a superb album. If you crave a bit more energy every now and then, it has numerous incredible songs that can improve any playlist, and that’s still something to appreciate.

Track by Track

“Norman Fucking Rockwell” – The album starts with its title track, delicate, vintage strings opening up the song. Then clean piano takes over, setting an intimate backdrop for Lana’s flippantly caustic lyrics. She calls her paramour a man-child, telling him his poetry is bad and he can’t just blame it on the state of the world. As Lana gets to her chorus, she cheekily explains this guy’s personal issues are simply the result of him being a man, turning sexism on its head. Horns close out the chorus as the song continues forward, still riddled with attacks on this immature man. “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is a gorgeous song that’s musically delightful and lyrically playful. It’s the perfect opening that promises an excellent album, though followup tracks will have a hard time overshadowing it. The song glimmers away, gently preparing us for track #2.

“Mariners Apartment Complex” – Next up is “Mariners Apartment Complex,” the song that kicked off this whole album era a year ago when it became the first single in September 2018. Piano and acoustic guitar open the song, capturing a folksier sound reminiscent of 1970s singer-songwriter material. Layers of piano, guitar, and strings create a lush sound, a rich backdrop to Lana’s confessional lyrics. She starts by stating, “You took my sadness out of context,” singing a verse before speak-singing the last stanza ahead of a mesmerizing chorus. Later, Lana’s line “they mistook my kindness for weakness” stands out in the song. “Mariners Apartment Complex” is a dreamy, loping song that grows better with each listen.

“Venice Bitch” – Only a week after dropping “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “Venice Bitch” became the second single in September 2018. This song builds around layers of guitar, continuing the folksy-’70s vein of the previous song and adding in psychedelia – musically and in the song’s length. Indeed, “Venice Bitch” is as impressive as it is shocking. Clocking in at 9:37, it’s Lana’s longest release to date. “Venice Bitch” is dreamy and has an innocent vibe. It starts with a nostalgic, almost childish melody, crude language notwithstanding. In fact, the lyrics and imagery recall Lana’s Born To Die album. By contrast, the music starts off as a tender, old-fashioned ballad before transforming into a drawn-out psychedelic jam packed with instrumental interludes. Though it plays out for nearly 10 minutes, it never becomes tedious; rather, it’s an impressive song and a standout on Norman Fucking Rockwell.

“Fuck It I Love You” – Just a month before releasing Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana revealed she was shooting a double video for two new songs. We finally got to hear the songs one week ago: Along with “The Greatest,” Lana released “Fuck It I Love You.” The song starts with gentle acoustic strumming, reminiscent of “Music To Watch Boys To” off Lana’s 2015 album, Honeymoon. Lana rapidly sing-speaks on the song’s pre-chorus, now harkening back to songs on Born To Die. We then get to a chorus that starts with a heavenly sound, transitions through dissonant vocal harmonies, and ends with a high whistling detail. This song sounds like a mix between the Lana of Born To Die and her updated, folkier vibe.

“Doin’ Time” – Lana is no stranger to covering well-known songs and including them on her albums. We’ve gotten her versions of classics like “Blue Velvet,” “The Other Woman,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” This time, Lana covers a song that’s a little more recent and more ska than those 1950s and 1960s numbers. Lana recorded Sublime’s 1996 song “Doin’ Time” for an upcoming documentary of the band. Somehow, her cover of the song fits perfectly here on Norman Fucking Rockwell. Lana seamlessly weaves together both the laid-back, ska-meets-reggae style of Sublime’s original recording with her own chill vibe. This time, instead of singing about “Summertime Sadness,” Lana croons, “Summertime, and the living’s easy.” The song retains its magical, tropical soundscape, still an ironic contradiction in face of lyrics about a cheating girlfriend.

“Love Song” – Apart from a preview Lana shared several months ago, “Love Song” is the first track here that we haven’t already heard in full. It’s also the first song Lana and Jack Antonoff wrote together, kicking off the album process. It fades in on sweet strings and melancholy piano. The first verse ends with Lana describing herself as a star burning through her lover, a line she repeats in her signature speak-singing. The chorus is delicate and desperate, Lana begging that he’ll be The One. But she’s a mess in her party dress (another nod to Born To Die), and their relationship seems doomed. After another verse and chorus the song suddenly ends on Lana’s lonely voice. “Love Song” is heart-wrenching, though it’s also the turning point in the record where the slow tempo starts to bore.

“Cinnamon Girl” – Lana teased “Cinnamon Girl” before, but we had to wait for the album to hear it in full. Piano serves as the primary accompaniment as Lana croons the first verse, but the music grows murkier as we near the pre-chorus. She describes the rainbow of pills her lover takes to keep her out, but they don’t work and she wins the game. The chorus is heavy, a sound like drowning, as Lana admits that if he holds her without hurting her, he’ll be the first who ever did. The chorus ends with a haunting “ah, ah, ahhh” refrain, the best hook on the album. Lana turns the chorus into an eerie bridge, higher vocals offset by low whooshing synths. The last 30 seconds fade out on a trap beat and percussion, the most modern sound here. “Cinnamon Girl” is a definite highlight on Norman Fucking Rockwell.

“How To Disappear” – Although we haven’t heard the studio recording of “How To Disappear” until now, Lana did perform it at the Apple Live Event on October 29, 2018. Before playing the song, Lana said it was the last song she and Jack had recorded for the album. That original performance – stripped down with just piano and vocal – didn’t reveal the extra detail present in the studio recording. On Norman Fucking Rockwell, “How To Disappear” transforms a sad ballad into something unexpected and quirky. We get generous percussion, a string section, and even a vibraphone to punctuate the song. Lyrically, the song talks about men in Lana’s life and her time in New York, harkening back to the Born To Die era. The choruses are sad, about disappearing and being forgotten. But the last verse finds Lana imagining a happier future, and the song ends with stability and presence.

“California” – Lana previewed a clip of “California” back in April, though we didn’t know then what it was called. It’s one of the three original songs here not co-written by Jack Antonoff; instead, Lana wrote it with Zachary Daves. The song glides in gently on piano, Lana singing that “you don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are.” It sounds like another slow, sad song, but it starts to build up in the pre-chorus about reading a letter and facing regrets. The chorus then hits hard, Lana describing what she’ll do if he returns to America and to her new home state. It grows louder and stronger, maximizing its impact. Allusions to parties, dancing, and pulling liquor off the top shelf again remind listeners of songs on Born To Die. “California” is an unexpected highlight here.

“The Next Best American Record” – Another standout track, “The Next Best American Record” was actually meant to appear on Lust For Life. A slightly different version of it leaked a couple years ago, but the recording on Norman Fucking Rockwell has been changed to better fit the other tracks. It’s another one of the three original songs here not co-written by Jack Antonoff, as Lana had previously written it with Rick Nowels. Over a hazy soundscape and minimalist guitar notes, Lana sings about her baby dancing under her architecture. It grows, adding subtle marching drums in the pre-chorus. The chorus soars over a more trap beat pumping underneath. It’s a sound that, of course, matches the vibe of Lust For Life, but it works well here, too. Despite its fairly lengthy running time, it doesn’t feel too long at all.

“The Greatest” – Along with “Fuck It I Love You,” “The Greatest” was the last single we got before the album’s release. Matching the style throughout this record, this song highlights layers of guitar and strings. Lana croons over soft piano about missing Long Beach and then later New York. As we move through the pre-chorus and the chorus, we again get a classic Born To Die sound. This is one of the best choruses we’ve heard from Lana this era, and it ends with cool drums and a guitar solo. The song fades out with a long outro touching on various issues – “LA’s in flames”; “Kanye West is blond and gone”; “‘Life On Mars’” ain’t just a song.”

“Bartender” – Lana has said that “Bartender,” co-written with Rick Nowels, was the first song she composed before working with Jack. It’s a quirky yet simple song about a girl on the run. Unfortunately, in spite of its storytelling lyrics, it’s the weakest song on the album. It starts well, especially the chorus, a simple winding piano tune and descriptive lyrics that feel like they comes from the Old West. Lana describes buying a truck to escape, living on the lam and staying ahead of those after her. But then Lana sings of her bartender… and the stuttered T sound ends up being abrasive and bothersome by the end of the song. It’s a silly and intriguing song, but stylistic choices make it less enjoyable than it could have been.

“Happiness Is A Butterfly” – One of the first songs fans heard of was “Happiness Is A Butterfly,” which Lana first teased in March 2018, then previewed again last January. Lana wrote it with both Nick and Jack. It starts simply, a piano backing Lana’s slow croon. But the pre-chorus starts to open up something grander, Lana describing an elusive butterfly of happiness escaping into moonlight. It escalates quickly from there, Lana wondering if her crush is a serial killer and how bad that would be for her, considering that she’s already hurt. The lyrics are kind of humorous despite her feeling like she’s cursed. Finally, we reach the chorus, Lana practically shouting at him, “Don’t be a jerk! Don’t call me a taxi!” “Happiness Is A Butterfly” is an ever-changing, surprising song that is playful and candid.

“hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it”Norman Fucking Rockwell ends with a gorgeous, confessional ballad that Lana released at the beginning of this year. It begins with Lana crooning over moody piano chords. She describes the elegant crowd she runs with, and the resulting stress from being compared to them. In the chorus, Lana references Sylvia Plath (an author most famous for her book The Bell Jar and her nearly concurrent suicide), illuminating the dark period she’s in. Lana continues, “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.” It’s not until the end that Lana confirms that she does, indeed, have hope. The song is heart-wrenching and raw, but it ends with a glimmer of promise.


Norman Fucking Rockwell Score: 4.5/5

Highlights on Norman Fucking Rockwell include: “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” “Venice Bitch,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “How To Disappear,” “California,” “The Next Best American Record,” and “Happiness Is A Butterfly.”

You can buy physical and digital versions of Norman Fucking Rockwell from Lana Del Rey’s official site here. You can also get the album from iTunes or stream it on Spotify.

Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell - cover art

Amanda

I earned my master's degree in Music Business from Berklee College of Music in Valencia, and have since worked in a variety of areas within the music industry. Music is my life, and I'm excited to be part of the future of Hidden Jams.

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