Norman F*cking Rockwell! One Year On – An autopsy of romantic dreams.
Credit: Polydor/Interscope/Lana Del Rey
A year on from its release, I’m looking back at my 9.0/10 review of Lana Del Rey’s greatest work to date.
Originally published 6th October 2019.
The dream of sun-drenched California romance is dead. And more than that, the hope of California might be dead too.
Norman Rockwell is one of the US’s most celebrated artists. A painter, author and illustrator who portrayed 20th century America in its full patriotic throes. The sense of reality and the detail with which he captured the colour of life in the country at the time stand as perhaps the most defining aspects of his extensive collection of pieces. Many critics note how idealistic his work often was – perhaps the colours were a little too bright – though he was also capable of immense honesty, such as with his 1964 piece ‘The Problem We All Live With’, and none will doubt that he truly did capture the sense of the times, specifically how America saw itself.
In light of that, Lana Del Rey’s latest offering could not have been better titled. Who else do you turn to for a vision of the American dream and the aspiration of Cali-bloody-fornia than Norman f*cking Rockwell?
I don’t know if it’s coincidence, but just recently I was thinking about how my tastes had changed when it came to concept albums; I’ve come to prefer more accessible records with broad themes as opposed to something more detailed and exploratory. Boy-oh-boy has Norman F*cking Rockwell! made me change my mind on that. I’m a sucker for sad albums to lose yourself in, and against the Autumn rain that has been lashing the UK as of late, the appeal of immersing yourself into the death knell of somewhere whose is so focused on aspiration is incomparable.
“Once the soaring title track and the idyllic ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ get under way, the image on that artwork feels so, so tangible.”
It’s the album artwork that got me hooked initially. Lana reaches out to you in glum grimace, whilst her blank faced lover Duke Nicholson pays little attention. Their yacht, carrying the stars and stripes, appears to be drifting at sea – the mainsail is not hoisted – whilst the sun drenched coast behind is lit up by wildfires and pale smoke. It’s bold, evocative and uttely, utterly compelling. Once the soaring title track and the idyllic ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ get under way, the image on that artwork feels so, so tangible. And what stunning opening tracks they are.
Trying to condense the sheer number of stunning lyrics across the record is impossible. Every song neatly captures a pocket of the life Lana sees around her – ‘F*ck It, I Love You’ smacking it out of the park with “So I moved to California, but it’s just a state of mind”, an apt showcase of how the album balances romance with its finessed social commentary. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ has an instant classic line on its chorus – “There’s things I wanna say to you, but I’ll just let you live” – and the pain of it pours through her delivery. ‘Doin’ Time’, covering the Sublime song of the same name, makes for the perfect mandatory pop single, feeling right at home as it details cheating, a dead relationship and the party culture of Long Beach. NFR! is above the political, fulling embracing its incredibly personal perspective and describing a world where the anger of punk or the honesty of hip hop aren’t enough to tackle its problems.
The middle section is where the album feels thinnest, with ‘Love Song’, ‘How To Disappear’ and ‘The Next Best American Record’ being overshadowed by the tracks that bookend them. Less than being filler, they don’t have the same depth as other cuts. The album is strongest when it fully embraces its own theming, and it lacks engrossment when it doesn’t.
“…the sheer force of the sadness the music brings is a stunning contrast, and has left me with goosebumps every time.”
But then in comes the funeral-march piano chords of ‘California’. Its words are simpler than on the album’s other big-hitting tracks, and perhaps that what makes it stand out more. Damn though, the way Del Rey sings “If you come back to America, just hit me up”; ‘California’ is a ballad of defeat, lusting after someone who has long since left the decaying world of the record. Against the sheer tide of emotions this song deluges you in, the nonchalant nature of that chorus, asking for a simple HMU, goes in hard. She searches for something to cling on to, turning to a former lover who has long since left the state and only sends her letters now. The way the song plays its dreaming, longing lyrics against the sheer force of the sadness the music brings is a stunning contrast, and has left me with goosebumps every time. It’s the crux of NFR!.
‘The Greatest’ brings further, aching nostalgia for better times, not just in its lyrics, but in its Beatles-inspired sound. Referencing both the old and new of Californian idols, it captures things our generation never experienced in person, and yet as much as it hopes for some good-old-days vision where the planet isn’t dying, it still wants it livestreamed. How potent and perfect a song this is.
Norman Rockwell was an artist who captured a version of American life that many wanted to believe. As his style grew, he exposed the sides that some pretended didn’t exist, the sides they perhaps hoped would vanish if they just didn’t think about them. Lana Del Rey takes a similar approach to NFR!, playing both on the world of Californian romance she has built through her music and taking full stock of how California, celebrity culture and dreams of blue sky love on the beach have become so saturated in our world today.
We as a generation have so much blasted in our face about what our lives could be, and it finds its way into almost every part of our world today. I’m sure many will agree that California is a prevalent theme across these images and aspirations, the ultimate pinnacle of America and the backdrop to the world of celebrity, fame and success. Here then is Del Rey, writing an album heavily inspired by the music of the 60s and 70s, a time that we are sold as a commodity today through fashion and lifestyle, and fully exposing how hollow this dream is. Behind the vapidness, the Instagram filters, the brand tie-ins, the beach selfies, the Coachella outfits, the house tours of million-dollar properties, the views of LA and the endless opulence, the one thing that we humans really need in this world – companionship, love, connection – doesn’t exist here.
“…California is a prevalent theme across these images and aspirations, the ultimate pinnacle of America and the backdrop to the world of celebrity, fame and success.”
On ‘Happiness Is A Butterfly’, Del Rey draws the album to a close with a firm desire to find reality, singing about how she “just wants to dance with you”. Something so simple and pure dies in a world where aspiration is the only thing holding it together. She longs for romance that is better, more tangible and more meaningful. She ends the album still holding on to some hope, no matter how dangerous it might be, describing a “new revolution … born of confusion and quiet collusion”. It’s unclear what its end goal might be, or indeed how it might manifest itself, but if it breaks through soulessness of dreaming to live some Califonian lifestyle, then perhaps it’s worth backing.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a stunning, mesmerising and fully developed idea. The detail with which it captures aspects of our times is incredible, packing such emotional potency and power into a record whose sound is able to deliver delicacy, feeling and lushness. Perhaps, as an outsider, I’m not able to appreciate that she may be overblowing a lot of this negativity. But in a way, that’s also what makes the album work so well. California and America are places of dreams, both good and bad, outside of their own landmass, places we hear and see in all forms of media almost all of the time. There’s a certain joy in losing yourself in a record that not only fully explores those dreams, but utterly, utterly brings them down and shows them for what they really are.
Del Rey reaches out to you on the album sleeve for NFR!, welcoming you in to a world that is burning from in the inside out, both with vapidity and with the wildfires strewn across the mountains in the background. It is without question one of 2019’s most spellbinding releases in that regard alone, and losing yourself in its nostaglic melodies is a wonderful, heartbreaking experience.