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 Del Rey’s 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 to say 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 like she was dream-journalling on Xanax. Early in her stardom, whether she was singing about love, loss, fear or faith, she consistently funnelled her feelings into one feeling, which was no feeling at all.
Time solved those problems. If her 2012 debut, 'Born to Die', felt detached from human experience, Lust for Life proves five years spent serenading the void is a significant experience in and of itself. When an artist honours a 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.
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); and “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. 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 materialise 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. 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’s 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.
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 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, during Change, she confesses to thinking that it’s just someone else’s job to care. It’s all building toward a realisation. 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. - Washington Post