Sunday, March 04, 2012

Lana Del Rey arrives with Born to Die

album review

Instep lends an ear to the controversial pop star’s debut album

Album: Born to Die
Artist: Lana Del Rey

Few indie artists have had as promising a start to their careers as Lana Del Rey, the stage persona of 25-year-old American singer Elizabeth Grant, who became an almost instant (albeit divisive) pop sensation brandishing considerable online popularity following the release of her stunning single ‘Video Games’ last year.

Few breakout artists, however, have made a worse introduction to the mainstream audience than Miss Grant. A chance to perform two of her songs on Saturday Night Live, even before she had an album out, turned into a debacle, when her uneven performance was derided by both critics and the general audience. A few minutes of nervous singing, and the singer had gained international recognition for all the wrong reasons; the charm of Lana Del Rey was lost, and sneers about her privileged background, enhanced looks, anti-feminist lyrics, and lack of authenticity had picked up steam; the Internet, as Lizzy Grant learned the hard way, can be a very unforgiving place.

She was first overhyped and then disparaged, all within a span of months. So even before releasing a proper album, the singer managed to split the music listening community into segments: those who were impressed by her singles and now intent on defending every note that came out of her mouth; those who couldn’t stop bickering about her being a manufactured product whose career was contrived and had been handed to her; and those who were sick of both the propaganda bombardments and the blogosphere backlash and would just like to go about their lives without having to hear about the singer ten times a day.

Now that her major label debut (her second album overall - a 2010 set released on an independent label was withdrawn from circulation two months after it came out) has finally hit the shelves, it is hard to set aside these preformed perceptions and listen to the record with a neutral, unbiased ear. If you do try, though, you will find that Born to Die is neither as bad as her SNL performance would have you believe, nor is it a masterpiece that will blow you away with its sheer ingenuity.

The self-proclaimed “gangster Nancy Sinatra” has come up with a set of 12 tracks that is just as cheery as its title suggests. Embracing a retro vibe to match her old Hollywood glamour persona, the singer, who has co-written each of the songs, doles out moody tunes polished with glossy trip-hop production. On songs like her breakthrough single ‘Video Games’, the atmospheric arrangements are powered by lush orchestration and put her velvety vocals to good use. And whether she’s delivering broken heart ballads like ‘Blue Jeans’ and the title track ‘Born to Die’ or rap-talking on ‘Off to the Races’ and ‘National Anthem’, the songstress never breaks character. Nothing quite matches the finery of ‘Video Games’ though, which remains the highlight of the album.

Over the 50 minute length of the record, however, this character can start to get a little tiring. Her languorous delivery starts to tread the line between stylishly aloof and unengagingly listless. And when she isn’t musing about wealth and fame, her inability to move beyond the submissive lover territory (“You’re no good for me, but baby I want you” she sings in ‘Diet Mountain Dew’, a sentiment that appears in many variations and shades throughout the album) makes the content repetitive and, at times, vapid; Del Rey needs to refine her skills as a songwriter and, whether she wants to play a sultry vixen or a subservient lover pining for a bad boy, she needs to learn how much more she can say using subtlety. Also, even though her stylistic incline makes her sound distinctive, there are moments on the album that show there isn’t much separating her from other mainstream pop stars; for instance, ‘Off to the Races’ isn’t far from venturing into Ke$ha territory, and ‘Dark Paradise’ is a standard pop song that could fit on, say, a Katy Perry album.

Overall, Lana Del Rey’s debut disc doesn’t give us a reason to either celebrate the songstress as a saviour of pop music or dismiss her as a complete failure. Born to Die is a processed and packaged pop record that, just like any other record, is not for everyone. It is a coherent set that chooses to go down the lane of murky balladry with the aim of showcasing Lana Del Rey’s smoky voice, but is held back by repetitive content and dull song writing, and at times by her inability to engage the listener. To give it a fair chance, you have to set aside whatever you think of Lana Del Rey or her pout. She may have jumped into the deep end of the music industry before she was ready, but it’s time to stop over-analyzing everything she does and simply see her as another pop musician; one can only hope that Born to Die will finally take the spotlight off her background and looks, and bring the focus back to her abilities and flaws as a singer and songwriter.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 4th March, 2012

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