Album review: Lana Del Rey, 'Born to Die'

2 stars (out of 4)

Where’s Jessica Rabbit when you need her? At least the cartoon starlet of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” had a sense of humor that might’ve helped her fellow vamp, Lana Del Rey, rise above the ho-hum on “Born to Die” (Interscope).

Del Rey’s had critics, pundits and even TV news anchorman Brian Williams in a  style-vs.-substance tizzy for weeks, especially in the wake of a much-derided appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in which she came off as wooden, if not petrified. Though the videos Del Rey released last year put a creepy twist on the torch-singer tradition, her first internationally distributed album isn’t nearly that intriguing.

“Born to Die” positions itself as a knowing retro commentary. It borrows heavily from B movies starring various second- and third-level “Rebel Without a Cause” bad boys on motorcycles, string-drenched “Last Kiss” pop tunes in which young lovers die in each other’s arms, beehived teens-with-attitude declaring, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” In an album full of sultry Lolitas practically begging to be abused, there’s even a song called “Lolita.” If that all sounds like a recipe for some campy fun, it isn’t.

Del Rey, 25, started her career in New York as singer-songwriter Lizzy Grant and released a 2010 album of relatively conventional pop songs produced by music-industry veteran David Kahne, before pulling it off the market. She then reinvented herself last year as “the gangster Nancy Sinatra” and signed to Interscope Records, the label behind Lady Gaga and Eminem, among others.

In recent weeks, she’s become a lightning rod for critics upset about everything from her marketing to her pouty lips. Cut through the fuss, and what’s left is a surprisingly dull exercise in bruised ballad singing.

Del Rey wants to be taken seriously as the bad girl in a gown, the cabaret singer with a masochistic streak. Her voice is draggy and understated, like she just woke up from a long wine-and-barbiturate bender to discover the love of her life has split with her cocaine, credit cards and best friend.

But the singer doesn’t do camp. She wants to be taken seriously. It’s not necessarily a hopeless wish. Though she’s not a particularly strong singer, Del Rey is at least distinctive; her unhurried style sounds nothing like the countless femme fatales with brassier voices and personalities clogging the charts. And the production, primarily by the gifted hip-hop collaborator Emile Haynie, also sets itself apart: dramatic, swooning strings; eerie sound effects that suggest musical saws; tolling bells and twangy guitars that conjure images of vast, forbidding spaces with vultures circling.

The songs, set in the Las Vegas of the imagination, revel in decadence. The title track, populated by ghost-like moans and driven by percussion that sounds like a drain pipe being struck, opens the door to the album with a theatrical flourish. The narrator is abused and heart-broken, and for the rest of her journey she toggles between victim and seductress, always at the heel of an indifferent lover: the drunk who’d rather play “Video Games,” the cigar-chomping father figure with a “cocaine heart” in “Off to the Races.” 

Del Ray embraces the clichés with unwavering earnestness. She daydreams about the sugar daddy who will “keep me safe in his belltower hotel” and rhapsodizes about “the light of my life, fire of my loins.” She wants to smolder like Peggy Lee, but these trite songs don’t come off as particularly seductive or sensual. After all the hub-bub of recent weeks, one of Lee’s greatest songs sums up Del Rey’s grand entrance: “Is That All There Is?”

greg@gregkot.com
CHICAGO

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