Album Review: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’

Lana Del Rey's 'Doin' Time' Video
Lana's dreamy cover of Sublime's 'Doin' Time' gets a suitably epic music video.

Turning around a speedy review of a Lana Del Rey record is a thankless task. While the album is increasingly treated as a relic from the past, Lana still views it as an art form, cramming in layers of melodies and ideas that slowly seep out over time. It took me months to get a handle on Honeymoon, while Ultraviolence continues to unfold five years later. Until Friday (August 30), I considered those albums part of the LDR holy trinity alongside Paradise. But Normal Fucking Rockwell makes it a four-way tie.

The most remarkable thing about Norman Fucking Rockwell is Lana’s growth as a songwriter and the clarity of her vision. While Jack Antonoff handles most of the production, this doesn’t sound like anything else in his star-studded discography. Instead, he free-falls into Lana’s hazy world of soft psychedelia and folk rock, quickly making himself at home. Interestingly, one of the three songs he didn’t produce feels like the starting point for the album. A song that first surfaced online prior to the release of 2017’s Lust For Life, at that.

“The Next Best American Record” (one of three gorgeous collaborations with Rick Nowels) feels prophetic in retrospect. From the title (a goal she achieves with Norman Fucking Rockwell) to the Cali-centric references (“Topanga’s hot tonight, I’m taking off my bathing suit”), this feels like a template of sorts. It even includes the line: “He was ’70s in spirit, ’90s in his frame of mind” — a description that could equally be applied to the album. It embraces the looseness and gentle revolution of the former, while succumbing to the general despair of the latter. In any case, this remains a career-high for Lana and I’m glad it finally found a home.

Speaking of being in a ’90s frame of mind, another standout is the 34-year-old’s cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time.” The track was originally recorded for a documentary about the Long Beach band, but fit the sun-dappled, drowsy vibe of the album so completely that it was included. Delivering a worthy cover of a much-loved act’s signature song is hard enough. But to make it completely your own while staying reverent to the source material is a magic trick. But that’s a skill LDR perfected long ago.

Lana has never worn her influences on her sleeve quite so brazenly as on Norman Fucking Rockwell. The inspiration for the album seems to be Laurel Canyon, a sanctuary for counterculture artists in the ’60s and ’70s including The Beach Boys, The Mamas And The Papas, members of The Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The hitmaker pins these artists to her musical vision board, name-checking them (“we play The Eagles down in Malibu”) or directly referencing their works (the opening line of “Bartender” is a nod to Joni Mitchell’s 1970 LP, Ladies Of The Canyon). But while the fuzzy, California folk/rock of these legends lays the foundation of the album, what Lana builds on top of it is very much her own.

While Lust For Life found our heroine confronting the world around her and flexing her muscle as an activist, Norman Fucking Rockwell is an inward-looking experience that documents often crushing matters of the heart. Not that the world outside doesn’t occasionally squeeze through the cracks (the title track is defiantly feminist, while the elaborately-titled album-closer is a direct response to the chaos of 2019). It’s just more muted and subtle this time around. Of the singles released from the album, “The Greatest” and “Fuck It I Love You” offer the best introduction to the album’s piano balladry and razor sharp lyrics.

“Bartender” and “Love Song” (arguably her best collaboration with Jack Antonoff) both follow that blueprint. The latter is text book Del Rey both in the distressed glamor of its imagery and unfiltered emotion. “Oh, be my once in a lifetime,” she belts on the chorus. “Lying on your chest in my party dress, I’m a fucking mess.” But instead of this scene being a harbinger of the doom that permeates much of her discography, it ends happily. “The taste, the touch, the way we love,” Lana purrs. “It all comes down to make the sound of our love song.”

It wouldn’t be a LDR record, however, without a bit of misery. The aforementioned “Bartender” is deeply melancholy, while “Cinnamon Girl” finds Lana ensconced in an unhealthy relationship that she refuses to let go. On the jarring chorus she admits: “If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did.” The track is also notable for its fuzzy outro, which is almost as cool as the epic guitar solo on “Venice Bitch.” Hopeless and lovely in equal measure, “Happiness Is A Butterfly” is another bruised love song. “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl who’s already hurt?” the songbird muses, before dropping arguably the album’s most poignant lyric: “Happiness is a butterfly, try to catch it like every night [but] it escapes from my hands into moonlight.”

Possibly even more heartbreaking is “How To Disappear,” a song that views an old relationship from a distance. But true to form, years after it’s over, the void is yet to be filled. “California” feels similarly doomed. Co-written with Zachary Dawes, it professes a brittle hopefulness that is almost unbearably sad. The desperate move of promising good times in Cali as an incentive to save someone from themselves makes this the most unusual of love songs. One not so much about romance as survival. The fact it bleeds so beautifully is a testament to Lana’s expressive delivery and masterful pen.

Try as I might, I can’t find anything unsatisfying or incomplete here. Lana has delivered 14 exquisitely crafted songs that are as reverential to those who came before as they are original. Norman Fucking Rockwell exists in a different dimension, one where Laurel Canyon is still a mecca for artists that use albums as their canvas. If anyone from this generation would have flourished in that scene, it would be Lana. This is an album to lose yourself in. It demands your time and, occasionally, your patience, but the reward is staggering.

Score: 5/5

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