Review: Lana Del Rey's 'Born to Die' slumps on impact
Is she gangster, gay, campy, sexy or slouchy?
I don’t have a problem with Lana Del Rey’s scarlet-harlot-starlet get-up. I don't mind a little peril. My hope was that she wore it well.
The issue of “wearing,” too, is apt in that female pop stars frequently face the demand to “put it on” or risk derision, more so than their male peers. But, no, in this case she wears it out – thins, shrinks -- on “Born to Die,” her debut album.
The 12-song set is like a prism through which we view the same dour, half-lidded persona, masochistically bed-bound for her flawed-but-handsome lover to the tune of some very silly rhyming schemes. Each production boldly attempts the same arc and faithful malaise of “Video Games,” her breakout single from 2011, but Del Rey’s vocals and words frequently fail her.
She experiments with a variety of vocal affectations, like the squeak toy on “Off to the Races,” pooling her “tiring’” coo behind the beat on “Carmen” and blum-drumming her “standing oh-vay-sha-ah-ahn” on unbearable “National Anthem.” The easy vibrato on “Blue Jeans” warps into a heaving toddler-trill when she’s forced into her higher register. Her pretty lower-middle range is where she should revel, like on “Dark Paradise,” “Video Games” and “Summertime Sadness" (give me a dub remix of this any day). Instead, she often sounds bored, like she could just as easily be asking for directions to the closest subway station as she could be crawling across dirty bedsheets.
Slinky “Million Dollar Man,” is the aural equivalent of a half-smoked cigarette, a boozy vocal trope on Audrey Horn’s cheesy “Twin Peaks” theme. “Radio” would be an absolute standout if she didn’t shoot herself in the foot with a refrain that rhymed the words “cinnamon” “vitamin” (pronounced vhit-ah-min) and “f*cking dream on Ritalin.” I like the lyrical trickling effect of "slipping on my red dress, putting on my makeup / Glass full, perfume, cognac, lilac fumes / Says it feels like heaven to him" on "Off to the Races," but then there's that whole girly "loins/coins" thing that turns my soul tar-black. She should have trimmed off infuriating “degenerate beauty queen” “This Is What Makes Us Girls” all together while “National Anthem” is an effective but irritating parody on Lady Gaga meeting blingy hip-hop, a wordy-word song of false wisdom ruined by its own ambition and a misty “kiss kiss.”
“Born to Die” is chock-full of modelesque, sensual beats and delectably messy production, easy to work around. What it requires is a commitment to character and self-editing on Del Rey’s part, even with material so dire. It’s fine to drench it reverb, put that pout in slo-mo and power through these dirges of ill-fated love, but for an underdeveloped artist like Del Rey, everything comes out in halves, half-baked, half-finished. For all the songwriter’s desire to be devoured by her Old Man (and by proximity, us) there’s a lot more work to be done to marry her talents and persona to product. Like Prince to “Purple Rain,” that sh*t isn’t born that way, it takes work; for a label like Interscope, they should have known better.