Review: Lana Del Rey — “Born to Die”

In the face of insurmountable hype, the polarizing crooner delivers a flawed but promising major-label debut.

Tony

Since she burst onto the scene last summer with âÄúVideo Games,âÄù Lana Del Rey (born Lizzy Grant) has tested the tensile strength of the internet hype-backlash cycle. After releasing just three tracks, Del Rey has found herself praised and vilified in equal measure by the blogosphere.

Now, after her recent flop on âÄúSaturday Night Live,âÄù anticipation is high for Del ReyâÄôs major-label debut, âÄúBorn to Die,âÄù but everyone already seems to know how he or she feels about it.

Hopefully, listeners can ignore all of the pre-release fuss and see âÄúBorn to DieâÄù for what it is: a passable introduction to an interesting new voice in pop music.

Many have criticized Del ReyâÄôs âÄúGang­ster Nancy SinatraâÄù rebranding as cynical, but itâÄôs freed her to explore different sides of the American woman, all of them exag­gerated, decadent, heartbroken and dead­ly. SheâÄôs Evelyn Mulwray, Jessica Rabbit, Mata Hari and Betty Draper.

Del Rey imbues all of these roles with her low purr, but the albumâÄôs distinctive sound comes not from Del ReyâÄôs voice, but from its excellent production. ItâÄôs all swoony melodramatic strings with hip-hop flourishes, and when it works, the re­sults are captivating.

âÄúBorn to DieâÄù gets Del ReyâÄôs three buzzed-about singles out of the way quickly and is better for it. âÄúVideo GamesâÄù is still a highlight here; along with âÄúBlue JeansâÄù and the title track, it introduces âÄúBorn to DieâÄù âÄôs more bombastic middle-third well.

This sectionâÄôs standouts, the darkly cheeky âÄúNational AnthemâÄù and the brag­gy âÄúRadioâÄù crystallize Del ReyâÄôs brand of slow-burn pop and detached Americana. They also prove that those initial singles werenâÄôt flukes and allow Del Rey to tran­scend her meme-pop label.

That said, Del ReyâÄôs lyrics often leave something to be desired. Part of what made âÄúVideo GamesâÄù so special was its mysteries (was Del Rey singing âÄúItâÄôs you, itâÄôs all for youâÄù with scorn or devotion?) But after a while the opaque gives way to the obtuse, and cuts on âÄúBorn to DieâÄù that allow the production to do the heavy lift­ing end up having the most replay value.

Even at 40 minutes, âÄúBorn to DieâÄù feels a little long, mostly due to its uneven fi­nal act. Del Rey would have been better served to cut a couple tracks or replace them with one of the albumâÄôs tighter bo­nus tracks.

âÄúOff to the RacesâÄù in particular, is about two minutes too long, and Del Rey takes the subtlety out of her femme-fatale Lolita role with a squeaky performance. When the Lana Del Rey formula works, it really works, but itâÄôs grating when it fails.

âÄúBorn to DieâÄù will disappoint some. Af­ter all of the hype, everyone seems to ex­pect it to be revelatory or a disaster, but âÄúBorn to DieâÄù is merely a decent album of flawed yet arresting orchestral pop âÄî and thatâÄôs okay.