The great modern American singer Lana Del Rey is renowned for her captivating vocal range and her thrilling contralto swoop, allowing her to crash through the gears from dreamy pop to pellucid jazz phrasing. A highly talented songwriter and in-demand model (for H&M’s fast fashion ranges as well as Jaguar’s 2012 F-type sports car) Del Rey is famous for her script-only tattoos, dedications to literary giants Nabokov and Whitman and the iconic black American blues women Nina Simone and Billie Holiday among them.
Her sumptuous discography began with the somewhat controversial Lana Del Rey (note the alternative spelling) and her debut single “Video Games”, the track that gained her the coveted Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song in 2102. Since then other awards have flowed her way, from MTV, Q, Satellite (“Young and Beautiful” as featured in the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby), the UK Music Video Awards and Xbox Entertainment, who rated her album Born to Die the best of 2013.”
Branching out further, in 2013 Lana wrote and starred in the short film Tropico, a Biblical affair lasting 27 minutes in which she plays Eve to Shaun Ross’s Adam. Tropico references other characters – John Wayne, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. An accompanying EP includes the sublime “Body Electric”, a pristine collaboration with Rick Nowels (Madonna, New Radicals, Santana, Fleetwood Mac et al).
The measure of Del Rey’s achievements in a relatively short time span can be taken by her chart placings. Her first Polydor/Interscope disc Born to Die topped the best sellers and has sold close to five million copies and turned Platinum. Born to Die: The Paradise Edition, a reissue with eight newly recorded cuts, introduced her to new global markets and Ultraviolence enhanced her reputation once it topped both the UK and US charts and went Gold everywhere from Germany to Canada and Platinum in Brazil, France and Poland.
Now comes the highly cinematic Honeymoon, available on CD, digital download and vinyl LP. We’re already swooning to the glories of “High By the Beach” and the haunting, folk-drenched “Terrence Loves You”. A mistress of the bizarre and the baroque, Del Rey’s star is rising with every release. Her modernity is a given but her pop classicism is the trait that will stamp her name in the books.
A native New Yorker born in 1985, Lana was christened Elizabeth Woolridge Grant and claims Scottish descent. Her sister Charlie “Chuck” Grant is a rising name in photography. Childhood was spent in Lake Placid and the young girl’s singing skills were noted in her school choir where she was the precentor. Without labouring the point her choral and religious background holds some sway in her latter work, especially when her songs have the whiff of the divine. In terms of influences Lana points to the greats – Elvis Presley, Nirvana, Eminem, Janis Joplin – those who stand out in their field. She is not confined by her choices but aspires to reach their peak.
As a teenager Lana began singing in Brooklyn clubs, learnt the guitar and found an underground fan base that has stuck with her ever since. She attended Fordham University and majored in philosophy, fulfilling a desire to find a link between organised religion and technology, which makes sense considering her own work.
Under the pseudonym May Jailer she recorded the unreleased demo album Sirens in 2005. Those who heard it first likened Sirens to Jewel Kilcher’s Pieces of You for sonic bravura.
Her first EP is Kill Kill, produced by David Kahne whose three songs would appear on her debut, Lana Del Rey, an aural approximation of nightclub chanteuse and burlesque strut pop. Lana Del Rey A.K.A Lizzy Grant made a splash via YouTube but has had a troubled gestation and may never be officially re-released. She describes it with a smile and a shrug. "People act like it's so shrouded in mystery, the 'forgotten terrible album'. But if you look on YouTube, all 13 tracks are available with millions of views, so it's not like no one's heard them. We were all proud of it. It's pretty good." Indeed it is.
The Lana Del Rey EP (2012) pushed Lana into realms of space pop, hip hop (“Blue Jeans”) and alternative rock that some older hands trace back to Nancy Sinatra and the Lee Hazlewood school of offbeat girl singer.
The big event arrives with Born to Die whose contents belie its cover, depicting Lana looking like a Hollywood star circa 1949: think Jean Harlow, Lana Turner or Veronica Lake. Everything here demands discovery, from “Video Games” and the title track to “National Anthem” and “Dark Paradise”.
Now settled on her stage name Lana sounds utterly confident and in synch, she is an artist who has arrived and made a grand entrance to boot. This is cabaret for the imagination with multi-layered vocals, psychodramas and not to be ignored melodic ambition. Sexually or passionately charged up until the needle goes into the red, Del Rey’s songs have that dark evening of the soul vibe, so what’s not to like?
Having spent quality time in London Del Rey was already a name to conjure with in the UK and Born to Die made its debut on our charts and became the fastest selling album of 2012. In America it soared to #2 (behind Adele’s 21) and went Platinum in 2014.
Bolstered by a striking image, a strong variant on feminism and promotional videos that caused much eye rubbing, Del Rey came under close scrutiny, often for the crassest reasons. Still, working on the Oscar Wilde dictum that ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’, she weathered whatever was thrown at her and took it to the bank. Ha!
Born to Die: The Paradise Edition teams that huge seller in a repackage with the Paradise EP, a cunning strategy that gave newer fans a chance to catch up and then enjoy new tracks, the soul packed “Ride”, her cover of “Blue Velvet” and the floating dream pop of “Bel Air”, a wispy, smudged ballad that some liken to Enya and Stevie Nicks.
Following Tropico Lana lands with a splash on Ultraviolence (title purloined from Anthony Burgess’s droog dude protagonist and anti-hero Alex in A Clockwork Orange. It was recorded in Nashville, California, New York and London. By now her unique take on futuristic Americana is luxurious and the singles “West Coast”, “Shades of Cool”, the title track and “Brooklyn Baby” resonate with a certain autobiographical peal of bells. No wonder she expressed a desire at the time to work with Lou Reed. She also brought the names of Father John Misty, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to the table and mentioned that her work was now West Coast inspired: “Really low-key and stripped back.” A top ten fixture for the year in many discerning polls, Ultraviolence has sales to match chart positions and her quest for the best console collaborators has taken her from Rick Rubin and Patrik Berger to the safe hands of Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys guitarist and pretty much everything else man.
The Deluxe edition of Ultraviolence is the way to go and you can discover extras on the iTunes Store and other outlets. Well worth the trouble.
Honeymoon is where we came in, watching Lana glide past in a Starline Tours of Hollywood open-air mini bus. Returning in part to the sound of Born to Die, their epic scale marks the songs on Honeymoon, all strings and zing and classic era pop done her way, the Del Rey way. The woman with the movie star name and the look to match just keeps on getting it right: lights, microphone, cameras, action. Hooray for Lana! Discover the glamour.
Words: Max Bell
Lana Del Rey is a femme fatale with a smoky voice, a languorous image, and a modeling contract. Not coincidentally, she didn't lack for attention leading up to the release of her Interscope debut, Born to Die. The hype began in mid-2011 with a stunning song and video for "Video Games," and it kept on rising, right up to her January 2012 performance on Saturday Night Live (making her the first artist since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998 to perform on SNL without an album available). Although it's easy to see the reasons why Del Rey got her contract, it's also easy to hear: her songwriting skills and her bewitching voice. "Video Games" is a beautiful song, calling to mind Fiona Apple and Anna Calvi as she recounts another variation on the age-old trope of female-as-sex-object. Her vacant, tired reading of the song rescues it from any hint of exploitation, making it a winner. Unfortunately, the only problem with Born to Die is a big one. There is a chasm that separates "Video Games" from the other material and performances on the album, which aims for exactly the same target -- sultry, sexy, wasted -- but with none of the same lyrical grace, emotional power, or sympathetic productions. Del Rey doesn't mind taking chances, varying her vocalizing and delivery, toying with her lines and reaching for cinematic flourishes ("he loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart," "Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice"), and even attempting to rap. But she's unable to consistently sell herself as a heartbreaker, and most of the songs here sound like cobbled retreads of "Video Games." An intriguing start, but Del Rey is going to have to hit the books if she wants to stay as successful as her career promised early on.
Words: John Bush
The maelstrom of hype surrounding self-modeled Hollywood pop star Lana Del Rey's 2012 breakthrough album, Born to Die, found critics, listeners, and pop culture aficionados divided about her detached, hyper-stylized approach to every aspect of her music and public persona. What managed to get overlooked by many was that Born to Die made such a polarizing impression because it actually offered something that didn't sound like anything else. Del Rey's sultry, overstated orchestral pop recast her as some sort of vaguely imagined chanteuse for a generation raised on Adderall and the Internet, with heavy doses of Twin Peaks atmosphere adding a creepy sheen to intentionally vapid (and undeniably catchy) radio hits. Follow-up album Ultraviolence shifts gears considerably, building a thick, slow-moving atmosphere with its languid songs and opulent arrangements. Gone are the big beats and glossy production that resulted in tracks like "Summertime Sadness." Instead, Ultraviolence begins with the protracted, rolling melancholia of "Cruel World," nearly seven minutes of what feels like a sad, reverb-drenched daydream. The song sets the stage for the rest of the album, which simmers with a haunted, yearning feeling but never boils over. Even the most pop-friendly moments here are steeped in patient, jazz-inflected moodiness, as with the sad-eyed longing of "Shades of Cool" or the unexpected tempo changes that connect the slinky verses of single "West Coast" to their syrupy, swaying choruses. Production from the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach might have something to do with the metered restraint that permeates the album, with songs like "Sad Girl" carrying some of the slow-burning touches of greasy blues-rock Auerbach is known for. A few puzzling moments break up the continuity of the album. The somewhat hooky elements of "Brooklyn Baby" can't quite rise above its disjointed song structure and cringeable lyrics that could be taken either as mockery of the hipster lifestyle or self-parody. "Money Power Glory" steps briefly out of the overall dreamscape of the album, sounding like a tossed-off outtake from the Born to Die sessions. Despite these mild missteps, Ultraviolence thrives for the most part in its density, meant clearly to be absorbed as an entire experience, with even its weaker pieces contributing to a mood that's consumptive, sexy, and as eerie as big-budget pop music gets. Del Rey's loudest detractors criticized her music as a hollow, cliché-ridden product designed by the music industry and lacking the type of substance that makes real pop stars pop. Ultraviolence asserts that as a songwriter, she has complete control of her craft, deciding on songs far less flashy or immediate but still uniquely captivating. As these songs shift her sound into more mature and nuanced places, it becomes clear that every deadpan affectation, lispy lyric, and overblown allusion to desperate living has been a knowing move in the creation of the strange, beguiling character -- and sonic experience -- we know as Lana Del Rey.
Words: Fred Thomas
Even after selling nearly three million copies of her debut album worldwide, Lana Del Rey still faced a challenge during 2012: namely, proving to critics and fans that Born to Die wasn't a fluke. In that spirit, she released Paradise, a mini-album close to Christmas, one that finds her copying nearly wholesale the look and feel of her vampish Born to Die personality. The sound is also very familiar. Strings move at a glacial pace, drums crash like waves in slow motion, and most of the additional textures in these songs (usually electric guitar or piano) are cinematic in their sound and references. Del Rey is in perfect control of her voice, much more assured than she was even one year ago, and frequently capable of astonishing her listeners with a very convincing act, even while playing nearly the same character in each song. There's really only one difference between Born to Die and Paradise, but it's a big one. Instead of acting the softcore, submissive, '60s-era plaything, here she's a hardcore, wasted, post-millennial plaything. She even goes so far as to tell her audience that she likes it rough (in words that earned the album a parental advisory sticker), to ask whether she can put on a show, and at her most explicit, proffering a simile that compares the taste of an intimate part of her anatomy to Pepsi. Granted, at the age of 26, she still has a few things to learn about lyricism, also resorting to cliché and baby talk in a manner that may fit the persona in a song, but doesn't result in great songwriting. (For examples, check "Body Electric," with the lines "Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn's my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend" and "We get crazy every Friday night, drop it like it's hot in the pale moonlight.") For all the progress and growth Del Rey shows in the vocal realm, her songwriting appears to be in stasis and the productions behind her have actually regressed from Born to Die. (The inclusion of a cover, "Blue Velvet," is not only a perfect match for her style, but also a hint that she performs up to better material.) Still, all of this is merely the fodder for her continuing controversy and popularity. Del Rey puts it better here than anyone else, with another simile: "Like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer, life imitates art."
Words: John Bush