Lana Del Rey has become a hugely adored miserablist thanks to a perpetually wounded voice and plainspoken poetry. Her fourth album as Lana Del Rey luxuriates in warm textures and laconic tempos that recall pre-rock-era pop, her voice given Rick Nelson levels of reverb that adds ruminative weight to even her most basic observations. Shying away from the big riffs of 2013’s Ultraviolence and the glossy noise of 2015’s Honeymoon, Lust for Life is almost like a fan service album, solidifying the idea of Del Rey as a trapped-in-space pop star of yore who happened to touch down in Los Angeles in the era of streaming music and sponsored afterparties.
Lust for Life recalls the gloomy pop laid down by the Walker Brothers in their mid-Sixties heyday, only with trap-era touches, allusions to modern problems and a penchant for songs that drag on just a little too long. It’s dense yet spacious, and there are surprising flourishes buried within: “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” on which Del Rey worries about the fate of the country, buries bachata guitars in its anxious haze.
For much of the record, Del Rey sounds at her most contented when she’s indulging nostalgic impulses, whether her own or borrowed. Allusions to her previous records dot the lyrics; the spacey, surprisingly touching “Heroin” is littered with references to Charles Manson and Mötley Crüe. The hiccuping “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” portrays being in the moment as an impossible dream, with the watercolor portraits of the distant past as an ideal to match. From it’s title on down, “Tomorrow Never Came” reaches for the “Beatles-esque” tag, and it largely succeeds: Sean Ono Lennon produced the track, performed the “Across the Universe”-echoing instrumental and provides a vocal track that brings to mind his dad’s shaggier outings.
Stevie Nicks drops by for the mournful “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems,” which could be a thesis statement for Del Rey’s career up to this point. The flashy cameos by A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti on the spiky “Summer Bummer” and the fever-dreamy “Groupie Love” seem to underscore this point – their verses aren’t in dialogue with their host as much as they are using her as a platform for self-promotion. (At least the Weeknd sounds intrigued by the idea of being in Del Rey’s orbit on the glittering, glacial title track)
The implied wink of the Del Rey-Nicks duet makes one wonder how much of the younger singer’s bummer quotient is rooted in a camp impulse: Is it meant to be self-serious like Valley of the Dolls, or is she implicit in the ridiculousness, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Del Rey’s po-faced delivery and the lush arrangements suggest the former, but moments like the moaned “why-why-why-why-why-whyyyy” on “Tomorrow Never Came” and songs like the preening, awkwardly slang-stuffed “In My Feelings” hint at a slowly blooming desert flower of self-awareness.
The sweeping, girl-group-echoing closer “Get Free” might be a clue. A “modern manifesto,” it outlines her planned move perhaps away from gloom, or at least “out of the black, [and] into the blue.” Whether that “blue” is a cloudless California sky or a place defined by sadness is what she’s going to figure out: “I never really noticed that I had to decide/To play someone’s game or live my own life/And now I do/I wanna move,” she declares on one verse. It’s an optimistic ending for a singer whose career has been defined by discomfort, and for an album that, at times, can get lost in its own mythology.