Album Review: Lana Del Rey Paints a New Picture of America with Norman F-cking Rockwell

Lana Del Rey delivers a captivating album built on the foundations of her older work but with new, transformative sounds and themes. 

Written by Kasey Clarke

Photo courtesy of Hypebeast

Photo courtesy of Hypebeast

On Norman F-cking Rockwell, Lana del Rey interweaves her past self and fantasies of the future, while acknowledging the vulnerabilities and fears of the present, to create a thematically resounding album that represents the culmination of recent transformations in her work. With NFR, Lana leans into a newfound disenchantment with her beloved America, shifting away from her past significantly patriotic (and highly romanticized) material. In a Vanity Fair interview, Lana said of the title, “It was kind of an exclamation mark: so this is the American dream, right now. This is where we’re at — Norman f-cking Rockwell,” citing the famed artist known for his depictions of everyday American life.

The opening and title track pulls from her past songs but speaks from a new perspective. On it, she criticizes a man, but ultimately accepts his flaws. Lana calls him a “g-ddamn man-child” and a “self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon, know-it-all,” but on the chorus sings, “‘Cause you're just a man / It’s what you do / Your head in your hands / As you color me blue,” referencing her older songs “Shades of Cooland “Pretty When You Cry, both of which yearn for an impossibly cool and unattainable lover. Now, on “Norman f-cking Rockwell,” she has this man — but he isn’t as dazzling as he was when she couldn’t have him. 

The rest of the album follows this thematic pattern: the femme fatale and tortured creative that have historically inhabited her songs, who have lived out a glamourous, high stakes, ride-or-die relationship, now see the reality beyond their fantasy. Compared to her earlier songs like “The Other Woman” or “Blue Jeans,” the type of love Lana writes about on this album is more genuine, seen in “Love song, but also more realistic. This follows the evolution that fans began to see on Lust for Life. On the track “Love,” Lana sings about love being the solace in her world. The lyrics repeat, “It's enough just to make you go crazy, crazy, crazy,” but the lyrics on “Love Song” are less frenzied with infatuation. Instead, she sings about a more intimate love; she asks, “Is it safe, is it safe to just be who we are?”

The America Lana sings about is more genuine as well. Her work has always been dominated by an Americana aesthetic, from dressing up as the Kennedys with A$AP Rocky in the music video for “National Anthem,” to being wrapped in an American flag in the music video for “Ride,” to constantly surrounding herself with images of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and the Hollywood sign. As previously mentioned, the album is named after famed American artist Norman Rockwell. On “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but i have it,” Lana makes references to the Manson Family and Sylvia Plath, suggesting that the parts of American culture Lana is enthralled by also contain something darker, shattering her idealistic portraits of the past.

Through this album, Lana laments the present through many tributes to the past. “Mariners Apartment Complex” was hailed by Rolling Stone as a “spiritual sequel” to Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2, which Lana covered back in 2013. “California” is a tribute to the 1974 Joni Mitchell song of the same name, with both songs about longing for someone to return to California, and the album is peppered with references to Laurel Canyon, the subject of Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon. Mitchell’s song is also considered one of the centers of the cultural and musical revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. The fifth track on NFR is a cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” the lyrics of which read, “All the people in the dance will agree / That we’re well qualified to represent the LBC” (Long Beach, California). Any Lana fan would say that sentiment rings true for her as well.

Photo courtesy of VEVO

Photo courtesy of VEVO

But the California that Lana sings about is also a thing of the past. The lyrics on “The greatest” grieve for a time gone by. “We didn’t know we had it all / But nobody warns you before the fall,” she sings, “I’m facing the greatest / The greatest loss of them all.” That loss is the fall of classic American culture. The last verse on “The greatest” criticizes modern Americana: “LA is in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone / ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song.” The last line echoes Lana’s Vanity Fair interview, in which she said, “We’re going to go to Mars, and Trump is president, all right.”

The overall sound of the album supports the strength of her lyricism. Lana’s voice floats over slow, melodic, piano ballads and dissolves into psychedelic riffing. The style draws from the ‘70s influence referenced continuously in the name drops of bands like The Eagles and Led Zeppelin and in phrases like “Catch you on the flipside!” The soft but deep sound that results from the stylistic change is an apt compliment to the subject matter of each song. Even though songs on the album like “Venice Bitch” or “How to Disappear” have heavy guitars and beats uncharacteristic for Lana, each track builds in her trademark, theatrical way with building strings and lifted choruses. 

Lana uses this album to express her disenchantment with what she used to idolize. “Money, Power, Glory” are no longer the driving forces in her life — instead, it's a longing for life, love, and happiness to be simpler. This shift gives her songwriting more depth, making her music simultaneously more unique and less niche. Fans will appreciate the more personal version of herself Lana presents on this album, and critics may be more open to her material growth since “Lolita” and “Carmen.” The strengths of this album demonstrate that Lana remains an undeniable force, bringing forward a new sound with the ability to voice nuanced cultural and personal frustrations.

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