Cat Power convinced me I might be wrong, or maybe just short-sighted. In the past, I’ve enjoyed certain songs from Lana Del Rey (usually the expected culprits), but I didn’t consider her an artist of real significance, someone who demanded ongoing attention. I discerned a vague novelty to her music, a disposability that caused me to shift her aside in my ongoing, largely futile quest to stay caught up with the new and weighty. Then Cat Power recruited Del Rey to share vocals on the song “Woman,” from the sterling 2018 album Wanderer. Whether I was convinced by the stamp of validation, a transference or fannish goodwill, or simply jarred into newfound alertness by the quality of the song — which fittingly offer a direct repudiation the tendency to dismiss women — I heard Del Rey again, with a bolstered level of appreciate, finding her layered vocals lent added profundity to an already fierce and powerful song. I wanted to hear more.
Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey’s latest album, is definitely more. “Goddamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you,'” Del Rey intones on the album-opening title cut, against spare and intricate music, positioning herself as a post-postmodern Liz Phair, willing to dispense her innermost feelings with a profane bluntness sure to set the more timid atremble. The album calls to mind all sorts of other female artists who are either her predecessors, contemporaries, or followers, such as Fiona Apple and Billie Eilish. But the careful melodies, emotionally evocative singing, and casually lush orchestrations set my mind wandering to other comparisons, finally settling on the idea that Del Rey comes across like Burt Bacharach as a bleakly disillusioned millennial woman. The Brill Building is reassembled, with a foundation constructed of the leftover rubble from masculine walls shattered by a sharp, disappointed gaze.
Lyrically, the album keeps circling back to the same themes and terms, as if Del Rey’s preoccupations forcefully assert themselves amidst any attempts at hard barrier variety from song to song. In the indie pop gem “Mariners Apartment Complex,” Del Rey sings, “And who I’ve been is with you on these beaches/ Your Venice bitch, your die-hard, your weakness,” and then the very next track is a nine and a half minute epic titled “Venice Bitch,” an immediate answer to her own vulnerable revelations. Del Rey repeatedly comes back to broad concepts of America and its national identity, and keeps singing about parties and dancing with a marked lack of most modern pop’s boosterish enthusiasms. Instead, when Del Rey breathily recounts shuffling through a lifestyle of constant celebration, she sounds like an exhausted ghost. There may be no better reflection of the indifference to the party lifestyle that comes with scalded maturity.
Mostly, the subject of Norman Fucking Rockwell seems to be Del Rey’s mixed emotions at her place on the cultural firmament, past the point of a pedestal-placed ingenue du jour and figuring out how to surf past the backlash. “They mistook my kindness for weakness/ I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus/ Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” she sings on “Mariners Apartment Complex,” and it reverberates like a freeing thesis of casting aside unjust, unkind criticism. Del Rey claims anything and everything for herself, treading bravely with assurance that she has as much right to the romp across the landscape of musical legacy as anyone. “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, is repurposed into the languid chorus of “Doin’ Time,” ready-made for the point at the outer borough block party when the first glimmers of dawn prompt all-night reveler to rub their eyes and internally second-guess the ragged choices of the evening.
The album closes with “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It,” which is loose enough to be saddled with a couple clunky couplets (“Hello, its the most famous woman you know on the iPad/ Calling from beyond the grave, I just wanna say, ‘Hi, Dad'”), but is mostly quietly ingenious. Against a tender piano backing, Del Rey cracks open a version of herself that is reckless and wild (“I’ve been tearing up town in my fucking white gown/ Like a goddamn near sociopath”) while also declaring a welling inner strength (“They write that I’m happy, they know that I’m not/ But at best, you can see I’m not sad”). Whatever questions I had about Del Rey are all but settled, because Norman Fucking Rockwell is a rattling, resonant answer. She is marking out her territory, one sharpened stake at a time.