Hard News by Russell Brown


Review: Lana Del Rey, 'Born To Die'

When the clip for Lana Del Rey's 'Video Games' arrived quietly on the internet, it seemed too good to be true. Its gorgeous, pouting composer seemed to have come from nowhere; her grainy montage of filmic images seemed to summon memories we never knew we had.

And the song. Oh, the song. From the distant church bell that signalled its arrival to its swelling strings and that vulnerable, all-too-experienced voice that wouldn't have lasted a round on Idol, it seemed to announce a new underground queen.

The reality was otherwise.

For the indie chin-strokers, it's as if they saw that amazing girl they met last Saturday at the hipster bar promenading on the arm of some douchebag hunk. Grief gave way to anger as they realised she wasn't the girl they thought she was.

Well, no. Lana Del Rey's not her real name! It was suggested by her management! She has a deal with a major label! Her father is actually a millionaire! The sooner you say it out loud, the sooner you can get over it.

In reality, 'Video Games' was but the first presentation of a two-year project, through which her management sampled as many as two dozen tracks, recorded with a variety of producers, to a select list of reviewers and other industry sages -- and, clandestine-style, to YouTube and other music discovery sites.

One of the early tracks, 'Diet Mountain Dew', turns up in a reworked form on Born to Die. It's a slight tune, like Morcheeba, or Lily Allen without the editorial content, and it hardly stands out here. But that hardly matters: there's some pop gold on this record.

Yes, it's a pop record. Albeit one that front-loads with the glacial, wasted Lana: 'Video Games', 'Born to Die' and 'Blue Jeans' are the first three tracks. It's not hard to understand why Del Rey has struggled to deliver the drama of 'Video Games' in solo TV performances (although she's done several which were much better than the disastrous Saturday Night Live show). It's not like the vocal for the recording is an untouched performance: a fair part of its tension is generated in neat little edits between lines. Your heart skips a beat when she seems to miss a breath. It's a constructed musical drama and the comparisons with Nancy Sinatra run deeper than personal styling.

The loping hip-hop beats don't arrive until 'Off to the Races', where they give way to yet another dark lagoon of swelling strings. There's the brief fluff of 'Diet Mountain Dew', and then 'National Anthem', a wall of modern pop technique that throws the entire kitchen unit behind its chorus. I've no bloody idea what it's about, but it's loud.

Then there's 'Dark Paradise', one for the Twilight market, surely, and 'Radio', the song that seems to have sober reviewers up in arms. How can she sing "No one even knows how hard life was," when her daddy's rich? Well, as you guys keep pointing out, her first album died a death and she really had been a pop nobody for six years. She was probably pretty bummed about that. Entertainment Weekly described it as taking "a 'fame is hard' stance normally reserved for Real Housewives." No, I believe she's saying that her record is being played on the radio, she has a new boyfriend and fame is awesome.

My perspective on 'Radio' is that when I was on driving around on Saturday, I played it five times in a row. It's an outrageous collision of pop tropes lifted two-thirds of the way through by a heart-bursting arrangement of (yet more) strings and Bel Air keyboards. What, really, is not to like?

Am I being wooed by corporate music's most evilly accomplished song-doctors here? Yeah, probably. Rick Nowels, author of Belinda Carlisle's 'Heaven Is a Place on Earth', is listed as a co-writer on several songs. Well, if someone's going to tickle my balls, I'd rather they tickled my balls for good. And this album, patchy as it is (everyone seems to agree the 15 songs on the deluxe edition could have been trimmed by five, but no one agrees on which five), is good.

And more to the point, it's different. It transcends the grinding conventions of so much modern pop music (seriously, listen to ZM, shop at Dress Mart or watch videos on MTV -- it's quite alarming) and I like it. I like it so much that I have played certain songs so many times that members of my household have suggested I might actually want to move on. It's some time since I've felt that way about new music.

But this is as much of a marketing project as a musical one. I'm not reviewing this off the CD -- it's not out till Monday and I don't have a review CD -- but from the "leak" linked to on Twitter. 320k MP3. I can't help but regard the "leak" in the same vein as the alleged "leak" of the 'Born To Die' video by, um, someone in Russia. About half of this album will already be on the hard drives of keen users of the various hype sites. But: whatever. If Universal Music discovers the value of facilitating access to its product via the extraordinary reach of the network, so much the better.

My main qualm about this record is one I'm surprised not to hear more widely: like much modern pop music, it's compressed to buggery. That's audio compression -- making everything loud -- rather than file compression. Some of it sounds better on my crappy car stereo than it does through the big speakers at home. Perhaps the CD will be more expansive. I guess I'll find out when I buy it. And I will buy it. Because it's actually pretty amazing.

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