Abstract Lovers

My friend Kelly has a rule: “only girls, gays, and god are allowed to have an opinion on Lana Del Ray.” Pitchfork’s clickbait review of her new album, however, has already trolled me into commenting on her once, so why not clarify my thoughts a bit? In the subheading to her reflection on Norman Fucking Rockwell, Jenn Pelly declares that the album establishes Del Ray as “one of America’s greatest living songwriters.” This strikes me as hyperbole in service of page views. To borrow from sports, LDR is an all-star, not a Hall of Famer. If you’ll excuse a terrible Bill Simmons-style metaphor, she’s Jimmy Rollins, the old Phillies shortstop. He was electrifying in his prime, terrifying teams. But only diehard Philly fans will pretend he’s among the best ever. Unless Del Ray produces something truly spectacular with her next albums, I don’t think we can consider her in that top tier of American singer-songwriters. At most, she is one of the best working American songwriters in pop. The only way you could believe otherwise is if you have a strong aversion to country and Americana, as Pitchfork does. This is a website that didn’t even bother to review Amanda Shires’ To the Sunset (why the 7th LP by a well known Americana artist isn’t noteworthy enough to review is a question best left to the gods). Or consider These United States, an Americana-styled band that Pitchfork doesn’t like one bit. After all, allusions are hard, and who wants a lyricist to aspire to poetry? That smacks of pretention, something Pitchfork could certainly never be accused of! It’s not like their reviews sounds like press releases run through a thesaurus or anything. No, songs shouldn’t explore how stories are told, nor work toward a sort of modernist reconstruction of spoken language. They should just convey vibes, obviously. For all their “college alt-weekly” diction, Pitchfork is fundamentally aligned with the anti-intellectual element of American culture, not much different from those Jordan Peterson-following philistines who are so skeptical of all art made after 1860. After all, they seem to believe anything indirect is beyond art’s purview, that any reflection on its own mediations is somehow “self-indulgent.”

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Johnny Appleseed telling a story and questioning conflations of nature, god, and indigenous people; or, Pitchfork’s nightmare.

But this is not meant to be about Pitchfork (though the state of their music criticism is absolutely appalling). I wanted to talk about Lana’s new album, which is good, if a bit homogenous. On a positive side, this gives the album coherence. While most musicians now compose individual songs that have little relation to the larger project, it is obvious Del Ray takes pains to make a unitary whole. At some point, however, the songs begin to blend together—there’s not enough of those “false moments,” sounds that so contrast with the rest that they provide a marker, not to mention reconfirm the unity of the larger project. It’s the Weyes Blood problem—the mixture of a very good musician, fantastic production, and a unified vision can easily produce something without the outliers (good or bad) that pull you into the work. It doesn’t help that the album’s runtime is over an hour. A curse of the digital era is that even the best albums now have filler songs that were better left on the cutting room floor. By the time I hit “California,” I was ready for the album to begin its wrap up. Imagine my surprise to see Lana was barely halfway done.

In terms of sound, NFR! reminded me of The Neighborhood, if The Neighborhood were actually good. Lana croons above a piano and synthesizers, constantly heavy on the reverb, capturing California ennui, that feeling of a beach where everyone’s turned back to land, watching fires consume the rest of the city. It’s the spiritual successor to Neil Young’s On the Beach, an album that wants to be written in the dark, except the blinds are translucent and the sun keeps shining through. It’s a work steeped in resignation, As Hazel Hills writes:

You could argue that her “fuck it” approach, losing herself in the beaches of California while they still exist, exemplifies the exact opposite of what great political music is supposed to do. But listening to the ways in which the Apocalypse clouds her vision in her love songs, contemplating how Los Angeles just missed a fireball, thinking of Woodstock at Coachella, actually sounds like what this moment feels like. You dress in neon to feel a little better. You go to grab a coffee and wonder if you’ll still be here tomorrow. You dream that things will get better, and the next day take it back. “Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” she asks on “Mariners Apartment Complex.” In Del Rey’s music, people fall in love at the end of the world, because that’s where we are.

This part of Lana’s music is particularly interesting to me. In my academic life, I’ve been working on this style of art, calling it aproductivity. It arises in the early 1970’s, falls away in the 1980’s, and comes back after 2008. Del Ray certainly captures the essence of the style, the way her songs build but do not come to a climax, instead just running out of steam. Her voice rises and tries to break free of the nihilism she’s written, only to be forced back. Search for meaning transforms into waiting for the object that will transform us. But who knows what that will be, and so terror creeps in, as our mortality reminds us we might be waiting our entire lives for nothing. She’s a master of capturing this terror without mentioning it, instead leaving it on subconscious plane, where it works your way into your body as you listen. This is what people refer to when they talk about her “psychoanalytic” influences, the way she relates to film noir and David Lynch. But she does this almost entirely through her soundscapes. Beautiful as they are, however, they alone are not enough to carry her lyrics. Rather, they mask the lyrics’ “B-plus poetics,” to quote Ann Power’s review of the album. If I wanted the hazy, depressed, subconcious beach sound, I would turn to Best Coast, or I don’t like Shit, I Don’t go Outside by Earl Sweatshirt, or Klangstof’s Close Eyes to Exit, or even the disturbing beats and interventions in Faces. All of them capture the schizophrenic subconscious of late capital in ways equal or surpassing NFR!.

Because of the lyrics, the album remains slightly underwhelming, at least compared to what it could be. Her lines fall into the trap of so much contemporary writing, filled with short declarative sentences where the meaning comes from the referencing of an Internet archetype. “Goddamn, man-child/You fucked me so good that I almost said “I love you”/You’re fun and you’re wild/But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through/Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news/But I can’t change that, and I can’t change your mood, ah.” It feels universal and new, but on closer inspection it’s pretty much just a sung version of any number of thinkpieces on “artbros.” Artbros are very real, but just recapitulating accepted identifications does not make for good lyrics. Despite what various blogs will have you believe, relatability is not a marker of quality. At times, Del Ray lapses into a mode that I might uncharitably describe as “a rich man’s Rupi Kaur.” “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are/When you’re lying in my arms”; good for her lover to know, perhaps, but a long way from poetry.

Her abstractions feel universal, but in striving for this they betray themselves. By turning her desires into archetypes, Lana flattens them. The result is that they are no longer actual desires, which are inexchangable and individual, but rather culture industry constructions, the sort of “boys” found mostly in Hollywood films. It makes her relatable and strips the songs of their power. Contrast her songs with Guy Clark’s “My Favorite Picture of You.” In it, his love is unique, something only he and his lover have experienced. It has no beginning and no end, it cannot be packaged or explained. Others look at images from it and see anger and hatred, but he just sees beauty and hope. It is intensely personal, yet we find ourselves thinking of our own loves. Not because they are the same, but because in its singularity it reminds of our loves, each unique, each real. The best relationships are never relatable, because they rely on individuality. Anything else reduces the participants to ideas, which can never be loved. They’re abstract. Maybe one day Lana will realize that. For now, she’ll keep trying to hold onto them; after all, in a dying world, ideas are the only things that remain consistent. People die, or they leave, or worse yet they change. Abstractions stay the same. Hopefully LDR won’t; to do so would be a betrayal of her immense individual talent.