11/15/2012 Update: We’ve reviewed the Born To Die: Paradise Edition! You can read it by clicking here.
Update: Lana Del Rey is preparing to re-release Born to Die as a Paradise Edition and has released a new video for “Ride”. Click here for all of the details from us and make sure to follow us on Twitter for the most up to date news surrounding one of our favorite artists!
The journalistic pressure that crushingly focused on the artistic intent and personal authenticity following dark pop, 50’s-60’s inspired songwriter Lana Del Rey was a living PR nightmare that seemingly drew a fine line between hindering and skyrocketing success of her debut album Born To Die, released January 27th, 2012 on Interscope Records. The music seemingly became the backdrop for Lana unless someone was bashing it’s nostalgic tendencies or monotonous, low register vocal style and in an instant, the world seemed against someone who was previously highly regarded and critically acclaimed.
In our previous article, we rolled our eyes at everything from stage name changes, plastic surgery accusations, and her unforgettable Saturday Night Live performance because we deemed them unimportant in the land of the 21st century musical artist and we were right. Upon the release of Born To Die, it took over domestic and international iTunes charts, found itself the number one record in seven countries (Number two in the United States, behind Adele), and top five in at least ten other countries. At the end of the day, it seems we were partially right: the image did speak somewhat for the music, but clearly the music then spoke for itself.
The writing on Rey’s debut is a vivid portrayal of the broken American dream and lost loves, amongst hopeful memories and melodies that weave the melancholy feelings together in complex simplicity, and wraps strong emotions which drive the cinematic themes. Conflicting romantic feelings run rampant through the entire disc, more importantly on “Diet Mtn Dew” and the album’s lead single “Video Games,” and capitalism makes several appearances, once “Million Dollar Man” and then again in “National Anthem”.
Rey demonstrates that “Money is the anthem of success” and uses the patriotic National Anthem phrase to create ironic hyperbolic statements related to sex and power. “I’ll sing the National Anthem while I am standing over your body, hold you like a python,” is one of the more visual and best attention grabbing lines of the record, but the bulk of the record is written in this type of manner. The trip-hop dipped “Diet Mtn Dew” connects New York City and the carbonated, aspartame-filled, staple beverage to a yearning of a seductive up and down journey, while “This is What Makes Us Girls” justifies the actions of the aforementioned song, proclaiming they all look for heaven, but they put love first.
It’s a cohesive journey and while fine works of literature that can stand on their own against their musical accompaniment can sometimes come off as too complete, dry, and/or dull, this album has none of it. It lyrically and vocally packs paradoxical emotion and pure, genuine feeling of a well educated, heartbroken 26 year old, with the wisdom and well versed influences. Vocally and lyrically being compared to Nancy Sinatra, Fiona Apple, and Stevie Nicks is not a bad thing in any sense, and the well thought out, mystique appeal of the writing aspect of Born To Die, coupled with the haunting, satirical, and beautiful album cover, even places Lana Del Rey in the outside circle of peculiar, brilliant filmmakers David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. (For the Quentin reference, we recommend checking out the blood splattered album booklet).
Where this debut album drifts away from it’s perfection is in the mechanics of the soundwaves themselves. Born To Die subtly crosses into Pop, Hip-Hop, Downtempo, Rock, and Adult Contemporary influences, it’s eclecticism is disguised and, at times indistinguishable because of the heavy influence of 21st century loudness mixing, which gives the record a more low-frequency heavy, vocally upfront feel to it, as opposed to it’s stronghold on genre bending. Dynamic Range average stays at a horrible 5DB range, with the maximum DB difference in lying in at 6DB, and it only reaches that level on four songs, respectively (“Born to Die,” “Video Games,” “Summertime Sadness,” and “This Is What Makes Us Girls”).
Lana’s voice is driven to the front of all mixes, but it’s the reverberation, delay, and spacing of the vocal tracks that allow the vox-up, tight compression techniques to be deemed alright, as depth and space is still created in the overall album because of these characteristics.
Born To Die isn’t that track heavy either, so live strings, percussion sections, the occasional guitar, and the emotional field recordings/occasional yelp and yell from an anonymous man are given the okay to be mixed more prominently inside the songs, as even though their dynamic range isn’t in the slightest what it could become if more care and a less-is-more approach were taken, they work and build up the album to become a powerhouse of frequencies, all warm sounding and uniquely creating a evocative throwback, paired with up to date technological tactics.
It’s the assembly of melodies and rhythmic sections that create an atmospheric subtly and middle America, strung out country-girl mood that makes Born to Die so alluring. Warm and exciting strings instantly start the opening and title track, and quickly dissipate into an open area of breathy Lana adlibs, electronic blips (reminiscent of the trend started on Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks), a hip-hop hype man of sorts, distorted screams, and a minimalist guitar line that sounds throwback to the Twin Peaks theme song. It’s all drenched and wet with reverb, beautifully complimenting each other the entire way through the track’s run and all play together to present all of the elements, in quiet form, that are to be experienced through the duration of the record.
Mid-way through, we meet “Radio,” one of the more downtempo pop oriented tracks that begins just as atmospheric as the album’s opener, but is presented with a rhythmic driven section of the song and top notched vocal production (including a smartly vocal, vocoded, that comes in through the middle of the track). It’s an easily accessible, honest love lamentation that remains dark because her baby loves her because she’s playing on the radio. Explicit language contrasts the fluffy, light melody and descriptions, and demonstrates the overview of talent and strength this rookie, breakout start is capable of.
“Million Dollar Man” lends to another throwback pop sound, crafted by the wonderful songwriter Chris Braide (Emma Bunton, Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole) that sounds like a standard nu-ballad, tinged in an aerodynamic lyrical melody, flowing strings, that sounds like a more polished and honest version of something Geri Halliwell or Nicole Scherzinger would pop-approach on a record, and lends another songwriting winner about a million dollar man leaving a woman to question why her heart’s broke.
“Summertime Sadness” follows up with even more Hip-Hop yelps and excited children buried in the mix and explodes in the way most songs are built up on the record. While the atmospheric openings of the songs and rhythmic introductions do get a bit tired, they’re always evolving, always different, but always unified at the same time so that they all stand out distinctive of each other and create a partnership that musically works with one another in perfect form.
However, perfect form and perfection can be seen as two different pieces of the puzzle and while Born To Die doesn’t quite reach classic status, it’s fourth track “Video Games” is an indescribable masterpiece. It’s also a part of an album that puts a fine dent into the first quarter of the 2012 year.
Album Rating: 4.5/5