Everybody says this new Lana Del Rey album is the one where she finally makes contact with reality from inside her perfumed dream silo, but I think it’s the other way around. With our government making each day of 2017 feel less believable than the one that came before, American reality — or the dismantling of it — seems to be merging with the singer’s vision.
Reality is fragile. If we intend to share it with one another, we have an obligation to protect it. And that’s one big lesson that art is always teaching us: The more familiar we become with what reality isn’t, the better we understand what it is. So we self-educate on the other side — through novels, through movies, through surfing our own theta waves, and now, through Lana Del Rey songs. “Is it the end of America?” she wonders on her record, asking the most burning question in the republic from deep within a dream.
Which is all to say that this new album, “Lust for Life ,” feels like a 21st-century Watusi down the yellow brick road — a gratifying pivot from the old stuff, which only ever made Del Rey sound as if she was dream-journaling on Xanax. Early in her stardom, whether she was singing about love, loss, fear or faith, she consistently funneled her feelings into one feeling, which was no feeling at all. Imagine Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK from the other room. Drowsy and distant, Del Rey exuded a half-glamorous aura of pure nothingness.
Time solved those problems. If her 2012 debut, “Born to Die ,” felt detached from human experience, “Lust for Life” proves that five years spent serenading the void is a significant experience in and of itself. When an artist honors their commitment to nothingness, nothing eventually starts to mean something. On top of that, Del Rey has evolved into a more decisive vocalist, and her smart articulation makes the dreaminess of her new work feel more tangible than tenuous. If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s relatively drab psycho-thriller “Inception,” you might remember a bright scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character describes the act of dreaming as creating a world while simultaneously experiencing it. Is there any better way to describe the act of making music? Probably not for this music.
And just as the dreaming mind builds strange stories out of our daily junk, Del Rey continues to build atmospheric ballads out of dead-stock pop tropes. Throughout “Lust for Life,” she assigns new melodies to classic lyrics with a consistency that borders on assaultive. For starters: “Don’t worry, baby,” (the Beach Boys); “My boyfriend’s back,” (the Angels); “Only the good die young,” (Billy Joel); “I fall to pieces,” (Patsy Cline); “Rosemary and thyme,” (Simon and Garfunkel); “Time after time,” (Cyndi Lauper); “Stairway to heaven,” (Led Zeppelin); “Tiny dancer,” (Elton John); “Every day felt like Sunday,” (a Morrissey lyric converted into the past tense); “A change gonna come,” (Sam Cooke). Even the album title is on consignment from Iggy Pop.
Again, this device isn’t new to her, but her commitment to it intensifies its meaning. At first it felt like a laziness, or a lapse of imagination, but now it’s evident that she loves these old scraps of FM poetry the way Andy Warhol loved Elizabeth Taylor, Campbell’s chicken noodle and the electric chair. And so her recycling begins to resemble a spiritual exercise — a belief in the eternal return.
Self-plagiarism isn’t off the table, either. The album’s most narcotic single, “Summer Bummer,” is an echo of Del Rey’s trademark hit, “Summertime Sadness,” only more evocative. Picture the singer idling around in the July heat, slowly typing out a telepathic love letter inside her skull. She’s listening to the radio, and her mind is drifting between external sensation and internal desire: “Hip-hop in the summer / Don’t be a bummer, babe / Be my undercover lover.” We hear the voices of Playboi Carti and A$AP Rocky splashing around the background — they’re “hip-hop in the summer,” the song on the airwaves.
This is the first Lana Del Rey album with marquee guests, and they materialize in one of two ways: like actors in a film or visitors in a dream. It’s refreshing. Duets have become tiresomely commonplace in contemporary pop, but Del Rey juices these collaborations for all of their surrealism. During “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” she’s visited by her idol, Stevie Nicks, whose heart loves and aches just as hers does. It’s like a happy dream. Later, when Sean Ono Lennon arrives for the uber-meta Beatle-worship of “Tomorrow Never Came,” Del Rey sings about a love as pure as John and Yoko’s, then turns to sing through the fourth wall: “‘Isn’t life crazy, I said, now that I’m singing with Sean? Whoa!” It’s like a song inside a song within an even happier dream.
She adapts to another industry trend — the overlong album, designed to maximize revenue on streaming platforms — by using tiny sonic details to generate hidden connective tissue. For instance, listen to the percussion of the opening track, “Love,” and you might notice the sound of a gun being cocked. Stick around and you’ll hear it go bang during the chorus of “God Bless America — and All the Beautiful Women in It.” If that isn’t some cosmic coincidence, it’s a direct nod to “Chekhov’s gun,” the Russian playwright’s dramatic rule of thumb that forbids a narrator from inserting any elements into a story that won’t show up later. In other words, deliver on your promises. Del Rey does. Over the course of 70-odd minutes, “Lust for Life” delivers on nearly every promise that her previous work left unfulfilled.
Here’s another way to listen to “Lust for Life”: in sequence, start to finish, as a linear journey out of dreamspace into our consensus reality. Early in the action, during the album’s title track, our protagonist sings herself a delusional lullaby, “There’s no more night, blue skies forever.” She has no intention of leaving her dream. In the song’s video, she actually kicks off a pair of ruby slippers and shimmies around in her socks.
But before long, the outside world begins to encroach. During “Coachella — Woodstock In My Mind,” she’s feeling freaked out by North Korea’s latest missile test, but can only envision world peace through the memory of a concert that she never attended. “Maybe my contribution could be as small as hoping,” she shrugs. Over the dazed jangle of “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” her lyrical rejoinder is equally helpless: “And we’ll do it again.” Later, seated behind a piano during “Change,” she confesses to “thinking that it’s just someone else’s job to care.” It’s all building toward a realization. She can’t change the world from inside a dream.
As the tracklist drifts toward wakefulness, Del Rey’s voice grows more and more alert, and when she reaches the grand finale, “Get Free,” she’s standing on the brink of enlightenment. The song’s opening verse tiptoes in the melodic footsteps of Radiohead’s “Creep,” then takes a wild left turn into the theme song from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” — a television show set on the fault line between reality and dreams. Here, our hero makes her plea, turning a famous Neil Young lyric inside-out: “I wanna move out of the black, into the blue.” As the music dissolves, she cheers herself on, shouting in a rise-and-shine staccato: “Out of the black! Into the blue!” Night becomes day. Dorothy opens her eyes.
It probably insults the mystery of this album to pry such a neat little story out of it, but that’s what we do with our dreams over Cheerios each morning. We examine them for clues, for symbols, for little gifts that only our subconscious selves can unwrap. Parsing our dreams teaches us how to separate what’s real from what’s unknowable. As imaginative beings, exercising that literacy is one of life’s great pleasures. As citizens, it’s suddenly become one of our greatest responsibilities.