Music Review by Noam Bronstein
Does Lana Del Rey Now Occupy A Seat Near Leonard Cohen In The Tower Of Song? Reviewing Two Tunes From Lana’s Upcoming Album, Norman Fucking Rockwell.
NB: This review should be read after listening to the two new LDR singles (links above). If not, it may be easy to dismiss as absurd.
It could be you’ve been surviving this winter spinning tunes from your (or your parents) youth. The late-period Beatles albums are all 50-year-olds now, or mere months away from that milestone. Eleborate birthday packages arrive from the vaults of Abbey Road Studios, emptying our wallets and filling our headphones and rooms, even our hearts and minds. Have you been grooving to the oldies? I won’t judge. John and Paul had a lot to say, and George sure had Something. Maybe songs do live forever, in our hearts.
Just don’t ever try to tell me that great music is something from a bygone era of vinyl and flowers and Tin Pan Alley. Great music is a painful joy to create, and a struggle to hear, receive and absorb. Doesn’t matter when or where. Magic happens between artist and listener when certain electrons and neurons fire. Musical connection may be a mystery for scientists to explain with proof or reason, but when they go home and drop the needle, it’s fucking real for them, too. So much for objectivity.
Lana Del Rey’s songs have connected with many listeners over the last 7-8 years since she dropped the stunning and wide-ranging Born To Die. The light of her vocal musings occupy some very dark places – and maybe we still want it darker. So firstly, dear reader, let’s acknowledge a connection – a mentor whose earliest three records are also currently enjoying their Jubilee – our Man, Leonard Cohen. We’ve been touched by the mighty economy of his pen, a soft sung voice of hope – at times an insistent whisper – on our chaotic and terrifying journey through Middle Earth and onward, toward the inevitable fires of Mount Doom. Hope is a dangerous thing, pilgrims (just ask Lana). As we all know, Leonard didn’t live to see The Songs of Leonard Cohen turn 50.
Watch: Leonard Cohen and U2 – Tower Of Song (youtube link)
Cohen died a few months before that, and with his usual devastating timing, left us on the penultimate day before his adopted nation raised up a new false prophet – thus neatly avoiding the need to witness the beginning of a nightmare he foresaw for us in 1992’s The Future. A crushing week for the hopers, but also a good and enduring reminder that music transcends – it lives on, to guide, and comfort, and sharpen the ears that hear. Leonard still lives in our ears, there is no going back to the ancient times, BC (Before Cohen).
Because he is our man. And Lana’s man too, evidently. If Leonard Cohen’s mantle were to fall on another artist today, could it possibly be Lana?? That seems like a strange idea – but, like many artists, Lana is channeling Lenny these days, unashamedly.
Compare some lyrics from Cohen’s Anthem:
I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
And they’re going to hear from me.
…..with Lana’s National Anthem, a 2012 hit credited to Elizabeth Grant (Lana) and four other writers:
Tell me I’m your National Anthem (Ooh yeah baby bow down, makin’ me so wild now)
Tell me I’m your National Anthem (Sugar sugar, how now, take your body downtown)
[….]Money is the reason we exist
Everybody knows it, it’s a fact-kiss, kiss
Lana Del Rey
National Anthem (2012)
Hmm, OK. A fine pop song – not in my list of favourite LDR compositions, but a decent tune. The only connecting line I can see (or saw) here, is “everybody knows”. Then again, Lana did perform Chelsea Hotel live, with Leonard’s son Adam. Can it be that Lenny and Lana really work in adjacent cubes in the songwriters Tower?
Well, it’s 2019, and Lana has grown up…now borrowing from poets and emphasizing her “I’m Your Man” assertion in the lyrics for Mariners. Hmmm. Time to sit up and listen. Again.
I’ve never reviewed any of LDR’s music before. The truth is that at times, I haven’t been sure if she was the real deal. Lana Del Rey has everything on paper – beauty, brains, heartaches, luck, songwriting chops in spades, a unique approach…a shpiel. But is that enough? Wait, what were we talking about?
As a listener with a few “old Cohen guy filters”, I’ve observed that Lana has been able to “win a while” on her “little winning streak”, even dealing with Leonard’s “summer now…to deal…with your invincible defeat“, with her hit song Summertime Sadness (now that was one of her best). None of that made her a poet, or a Cohen devotee…as far as I could see at the time. Certainly Lana, like the much younger Lorde, has made a place for herself as a more serious artist than most of her contemporaries. My doubts about her lay in her self-obsessed nature. Always unique and compelling, causing me to come back (after leaving) and listen again, touching occasionally on some universal themes, but never quite convincing me whether this was transformative, or merely cool but recycled/reimagined pop music, curated with sexy, at-times lurid videography, to cater to the cool and depressed lonely rich kids. I stumbled on the continual dope and pills exhortations. This is the girl that once claimed she was currently the only artist creating sad music. The same girl from 2012’s Born To Die who sang “Don’t make me sad/Don’t make me cry […]Keep making me laugh/Let’s go get high”. I enjoyed many of her songs, but struggled with the ironies, and with her continually daring us to take her literally (or not).
Now I’m scratching my head again, because for starters, Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me is one of the most starkly honest and intimate songs I’ve heard from anyone in recent times. I rode this tune from compelling to essential in two or three listens, it just floored me. All I wanted to do was listen fifty more times, to absorb its meaning and significance. (a bit like listening to Cohen. Hmmm)
This is the softest Lana we’ve heard – hard, edgy, difficult words – yet sung as plainly as LC’s Hallelujah, and with only a piano for accompaniment. Lana sounds more vulnerable than ever before on this track – by quite a margin. Hope seems like a very personal expression and something she’s wanted to say for a long time. It’s the poetry, and the sonic delivery that’s so unique here. The soft is reduced to a higher octave whisper by the conclusion, and it’s a thing of beauty, that ends on a note of…well, incredibly, hope. “And I have it, Yes, I have it“, she sings, in an almost faint whisper of personal, hopeful triumph. LDR has given us quite a number of fine songs from the heart, all of which seem eclipsed now, that’s how good this thing is. Every time it ends I want to hear it again. If raw truth is the poet’s ultimate M.O., then this is Lana Del Rey’s finest work to date.
Mariners Apartment Complex couldn’t be more different – this too is one of Lana’s best songs, but it comes in a more typical Sad Lana musical template. Great production, and not too much of it. Don’t be fooled though – listen to the lyrics. This is Lana literally singing “I’m your man” as the refrain to her latest complex tale of reckless romance on the high seas. Mariners Apartment Complex takes more listens to hit, but it hits hard. It seems like Lana is bidding her Marylin persona farewell, in the line “I ain’t no candle in the wind.” As for her lover, she offers solid, stable comfort. “You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me.”
Who are you, Lana?
I’m Your Man,
I’m Your Man
Lana sings Lenny, 2019 (Mariners Apartment Complex)
If Lenny’s ghost is affecting in some way, it seems that in Mariners, Lana is as sure-footed as we’ve ever heard. Her voice and message are clear, confident, and incredibly positive. This is just an amazingly uplifting song, from an artist who often devastates with truth, celebrates, mocks…but here summons her own inner strength and hope, encouraging her listener in direct terms. Oh yes, hope indeed.
And if the diet still isn’t irony-rich enough for you, Lana closes the track with a humourous dessert in the form of a fadeout in tribute to her sunshiney contemporaries, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
Are you Ready For It?
Are you Ready For It?
Are you Ready For It?
If that was a question, my answer is yes, please – give us more songs like these gems. And thank you.
Both songs are indeed poems put to music, they’re personal and direct, and truthful to a fault (or a hurt). The writer is self-aware, and seems very aware of her status as a woman in society and among her peers. Whether it’s actually feminism, or acceptable to progressive women in 2019, is a topic for another day (and probably a more ‘woke’ writer).
Leonard Cohen never left us doubting his sincerity or directness. He delighted in painting songs of endless depth with few words, and whenever possible, small words. Monosyllabic even. Used with economy, and humility. Always.
Those were the reasons,
That was New York
We were running for
The money and the flesh
That was called love
For the workers in song
Probably still is for those of them left
Chelsea Hotel #2 (1974)
Great music, and poetry, challenges our precepts. It forces us to rethink what we thought we knew. Even what we were sure of. Lana Del Rey was obstensibly a party girl who yearned to reach beyond relationships and find her real self. (Who are we to judge? Heroes like Cohen ran for the same money and flesh, by his own accounts) It appears that 2019 marks a point where one of this decade’s most successful artists should finally receive unanimous and well-deserved praise for her work – likely pleasing an audience that’s grown older and wiser along with her. In so bravely taking on Leonard Cohen’s voice, she rejects cynicism – previously one of her sharper weapons – and sets a new course: perhaps for Mount Zion and the quest for a noble love, though she’s still young and will be prone to distractions. For a wish: May you, Lana, ever be in good company. Godspeed on your journey. And thanks for the music.
Postscript: while I doubted some of my observations in writing this piece, it would appear that, 18 months later, these same analogies appeared in Pitchfork, in a truly eloquent article by Jayson Greene. If he did “borrow” from my hope->hallelujah thesis, and the Trump bypass, I’m flattered (though a bit of credit would have been nice!? Lol). At least I’m not the only one who hears it.
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