Thursday, September 17, 2015

album review: 'honeymoon' by lana del rey

I bet there's a slew of you who are wondering why I'm bothering to do this review. I mean, it's not like I haven't made my opinion on this artist pretty damn clear by this point, so why on earth am I bothering to cover her?

Well, believe it or not, I actually do have a certain fascination with Lana Del Rey, at least in terms of her somehow still increasing popularity. I mean, I got it at first: 'Video Games' remains an excellent song, and I can even see it making sense into Born To Die - sure, the writing was melodramatic as hell and I didn't care much for Lana's delivery, but at least the production had a veneer of glamour and bombast that made songs like 'National Anthem' workable. But then Ultraviolence happened with Dan Auerbach behind the production boards and an attempt to emphasize more of a bluesy, reverb-swallowed sound, and the veneer was torn away. It didn't have the grandiose bombast to make compelling melodrama, and the writing rapidly became insufferable as Lana tried without fail to romanticize and glamorize her terrible behaviour, bad situations, and seeming inability to do anything to change them without an ounce of self-awareness. And sure, you can argue that's a character she's playing and that this is what Hollywood has 'made' her, but the writing and especially the framing doesn't really support that insight - and it's not as if it made the music any less tiresome and drab to add any subversive thrill to the regressive cliches and stereotypes. On top of that, she chose to abandon more her more soulful lower range for this high baby-voiced cooing slur that when it wasn't getting overwhelmed by the mix failed to raise any emotional response in me whatsoever. 

And you'd think that more people would have picked up on that, but it seemed like critics and audiences alike were enraptured by it and Lana Del Rey got bigger than ever, even finding her perfect male counterpart with The Weeknd and his shameless brand of hedonistic exploitation - but at least he knew enough to bring some visceral punch to his best melodramas. Whereas with Lana... well, maybe it's just everyone already knowing my preferences, but I've received a lot less requests for Honeymoon than I did for Ultraviolence, and I'll admit I was interested. Sure, singles like 'High By The Beach' annoyed the hell out of me, but I did notice that there were fewer producers than ever behind this album, with Lana handling even more of the production herself. So with more artistic control than ever before, what does Lana Del Rey deliver?


Well, it's better than Ultraviolence - but that's more because that album pissed me off while Honeymoon barely raises any emotions in me at all. I can acknowledge that there are some scattered improvements across the board, almost to the point where I get the feeling Lana actually managed to drive up some solid melodrama... until the end of the album where she manages to piss the majority of it away. And just like Ultraviolence, I'll admit right out of the gate that I'm not in the target audience for this sort of record - but even if I was, this still isn't good, and for many of the exact same reasons her previous records didn't work. 

So let's start with Lana Del Rey herself, and look, you either like her monotone, half-slurred coo that blatantly appropriates vintage pop or you don't, and for the most part, it does absolutely nothing for me. It's not soulful or impassioned or raw, it's barely even sensual because that would require Lana to sound like she gives a shit, and that only happens on when she dips into her lower register. Which, to her credit, she does a lot more on this record and there are points where she does sound sultry and approaches that noir, femme fatale image. And as much as she drowns this album in reverb, I will admit it does cover some of the weaknesses in her upper range where her voice can start to crack or go off-key - and sure, it does happen on this album, but less than usual. 

And the positives keep coming because the instrumentation has improved modestly as well. Sure, it's still as monochromatic and reverb-choked as ever, and I'd challenge you to remember any melody line that isn't directly tied to a vocal line, but it seems like Lana was looking to find a medium between the perpetually faded Ultraviolence and the vintage glamour of Born To Die, and there are moments where she succeeds. I like that lower guitar she introduces on songs like 'Terence Loves You' and 'God Knows I Tried' and especially 'Religion' where she picks up a little more rumble courtesy of the thick low percussion roiling below. And hell, the strings arrangements she uses for the title track and 'Art Deco' or the slight menace that creeps into 'Music To Watch Boys To' or the Spanish rollick of '24' do have some of that class. And in the best cases we get songs like 'Salvatore', which might as well be trying to pull straight from a Godfather movie with the lo-fi strings, echoing deep voices in the background and the expansion across the second half of the song, or the darker groove that kicks into 'The Blackest Day' with the lurking guitar smoulder, easily the best two songs on the album. But those are the moments where Lana can keep things interesting, which is where we encounter the first major issue with this record: the majority of these tracks run over four and a half minutes, and most run out of instrumental ideas and progressions after the first. And given that so much of it is smothered in layers of reverb and a mix that almost seems to emphasize the humidity, it makes the record feel so turgid and heavy it easily feels longer than the hour plus it runs. On top of that, the lack of top quality producers does show, most notably in the synth tones and the horns - for as much gauze and humidity Lana blankets this album with, the synths are often way too clear to blend well, and the horns on tracks like '24' feel way too thin to back up that pomp and bombast. And that's before we get to tracks like 'High By The Beach' and 'Freak', which are just a mess of bad mixing, oily synth loops, and on 'Freak' an attempt for sexuality that feels incredibly forced. Sorry, Lana, even if you tried to mimic Timbaland's vocal filters from 'SexyBack' for the outro, you're not pulling it off.

And now we've got the lyrics and themes, and before I start dissecting these at length, let's describe what we get on our fourteen tracks. Five songs about toxic relationships in some variety, three of melodramatic bitching about fame and the press, including a Nina Simone cover of 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' that Lana doesn't improve at all, two attempts at sex songs, the latter 'Religion' ripping off some obvious imagery from Madonna's 'Like A Prayer', one overly voyeuristic track that might have had some melodramatic thrill if Lana didn't play off like a bad game - and an interlude featuring a good poem from T.S. Elliot that Lana can't really elevate pretentious, pseudo-spiritual musings on the nature of time. On top of that there's a tribute to Azealia Banks of all people on 'Art Deco', which is actually a little fascinating because read between the lines and it could easily be read as a veiled comment that Azealia's inability to keep her mouth shut and let her music speak for her being the reason she hasn't found more success. Honestly, I kind of like that Lana played the song with this little tact, because it's the sort of double-edged song that could easily spark up real melodrama. And on the topic of melodrama, that's really the only way I get any enjoyment from this album, watching lurid situations play out, and there's only two that really work. The first is 'Salvatore', which is more for the atmosphere than the writing, but it does capture that femme fatale vibe as she dies in lurid Mafiaso debauchery. What gets more interesting is the second case 'The Blackest Night', where she discovers her man was cheating on her, she goes to exact bloody revenge - and it's unclear whether or not she gets it, the Buddie Holly reference would imply it, but either way, it's melodramatic and it at least shows her rising above the bad relationships she stayed in on Ultraviolence. Hell, a song like 'Terrence Loves You' shows her trying to recuperate from being dumped herself and it's not bad - although I'd definitely argue that Lana hasn't quite earned the right to openly steal some of David Bowie's most famous lines. So maybe have we reached a point of emotional maturity?

Well, not quite, and it comes down to one song that I purposefully left out of my count: 'Swan Song'. Lyrically, this is a track where Lana encourages her man to stop working so hard, put on his white tennis shoes - metaphor for avoiding work - and she'll even stop singing and they can go find eternity, letting him take the lead. On the very surface level, this song exasperates me because it's basically a song about inactivity for the idle rich - some of us do have to work for a living, Lana. But it runs deeper than that, and it comes to framing: beyond the Nina Simone cover, this is the album closer, one of the more opulent songs, one of the most romantic - and it features Lana setting aside her artistic autonomy to submit to a guy. And from all of the evidence on this album, there's no evidence that this guy is any better than the cliched and often abusive bad boys Lana falls for time and time again. This is coming after an album where Lana confronts the rationale why she goes for bad boys and maybe even has a breakthrough - and yet it ends with her returning to the exact same situation. And this swan song, this happy ever after, is framed as high romance, and that's what pisses me off about Honeymoon, and it's why the closing Nina Simone song rings as hollow excuses. The arc of this album shows Lana trying for introspection, and her solution to that her personality and behaviour might be the problem isn't so much to change but to submit completely. She spends a fair chunk of this album on her knees licking soft ice cream - I'd say 'blow me', but I'm not sure she'd take it as metaphor. 

So in the end, Honeymoon is better than Ultraviolence if only because it actually can land a few moments of ridiculous melodrama, but it doesn't make it good. The instrumentation is tepid and drab, the performance is rarely engaging, the mix is swallowed in its own dank humidity, the writing is overloaded with cliche when it isn't cribbing from better songwriters, and the themes kind of make me sick. For me, a light 4/10 and no recommendation, and while I could rail against the underlying message of domestication this is feeding into the heads of an impressionable fanbase, truth be told, it's too drawn out, pretentious, and lacking in momentum to really be gripping in ways her previous albums were. Even would-be submissives masturbating to Fifty Shades of Grey would find this tedious, and that's saying something.

1 comment:

  1. Okay.. So I must say, yes you make clear points, but beyond the reasoning you tried to give with your opinion on this album which honestly fell short to good reasoning. There is emotion brought by each song on this album! It comes in the atmosphere of it all! Lana provides cinematic moves in her lyrics and instruments used. I find her music to be such as a .. Movie carring you to the build up, climax, problems, drama, and the let downs but most importantly the revival of it all! So I believe this album was a masterpiece in Lana Del Rey's genre.
    Also I love your blog and YouTube channel haha

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