When Pitchfork recently sat down with Lana Del Rey for a wide-ranging interview, the topic of the pop star’s apparent newfound happiness came up right away. “I made personal commitments,” Del Rey responded when asked how she’d reached a better place, although she demurred on specifics. “I had some people in my life that made me a worse person. I was not sure if I could step out of that box of familiarity, which was having a lot of people around me who had a lot of problems and feeling like that was home base. Because it’s all I know.”
It’s understandable why Del Rey might have been hesitant to leave that turbulent bubble: Emotional turmoil can be addictive, and the thrill of interpersonal drama is especially habit-forming. (Just look at one of America’s favorite amateur sports: complaining about co-workers.) Over time, however, all that chaos can be exhausting.
That exhaustion—and the ennui it causes—was evident on Del Rey’s last two studio albums, 2014’s Ultraviolence and 2015’s Honeymoon. Although Del Rey’s ability to manifest her own aesthetic universe there was impressive, both records were weighed down by sluggish songs that used nostalgia like a crutch, and employed winking homage in place of lyrical depth. Her portraits of California’s seedier edges, confessional tales of wounded relationships, and explorations of damaged psyches were alluring, but ultimately felt like a faded watercolor.
At 16 songs and 72 minutes, Del Rey’s latest studio effort, Lust For Life, still feels like it could have used an editor. The record settles into a midtempo groove on song one, then stays there for the duration. (The final three tunes, all of which exceed five minutes in length, feel especially like slogs.) However, because Del Rey is no longer beholden to a stormy, fatalistic perspective, at least it’s slightly brighter, more open to the future—for herself and for other people. This mindset opens up more resonant and expansive lyrical vistas. On opener “Love,” she draws strength from observing how younger people are intoxicated by life’s possibilities, as evidenced by how they’re prone to “get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop.” The title track captures the sensation of having dizzying sexual chemistry with someone, while “God Bless America—And All The Beautiful Women In It” is a self-explanatory ode to the greatness of women.
Del Rey is also better equipped to navigate her own idiosyncrasies. On “13 Beaches,” she avoids the paparazzi so she can deal with lingering romantic issues in seclusion, while “In My Feelings” is full of hell-raising defiance in the aftermath of a breakup. “I’m smoking while I’m running on my treadmill,” she sings. “But I’m coming up roses / Could it be that I fell for another loser?” Dryly, she trills that final word, her voice trailing upward in an audible eye roll.
Of course, Lust For Life wouldn’t be a Lana Del Rey record without deep wells of melancholy. But her overall more upbeat outlook leads to some intriguing twists on the familiar theme. “Coachella—Woodstock In My Mind” is about watching Father John Misty captivate a festival crowd despite looming global unrest. This leads to an existential crisis where Del Rey frets about the hopes and dreams of the young attendees, and longs for a “stairway to heaven” to ask an unnamed “him” (God? A lost family member?) a question. “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” has a similarly apocalyptic tone (“Is it the end of an era? / Is it the end of America?”), but urges embracing life with gusto anyway.
Unfortunately, such complexity makes her usual pop culture interpolations feel a bit tacked-on this time around. Having a lyric such as “Life rocked me, like Mötley” on a song called “Heroin” just comes off as cheesy, while the Beatles-referencing, Sean Lennon collaboration “Tomorrow Never Came” is a tad too precious for its own good. In it, Del Rey references listening to Yoko Ono and John Lennon records, then breaks the fourth wall to exclaim, “‘Isn’t life crazy?’ I said, now that I’m singing with Sean.”
“Tomorrow Never Came” is nevertheless one of Lust For Life’s most distinctive and successful songs. Psychedelic-tinted and graceful, the tune is highlighted by cinnamon-colored acoustic guitar shimmers and gorgeous Del Rey and Lennon harmonizing. The Stevie Nicks guest spot on the hushed, sparse “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” is equally inspired: The women sound tough and tender on separate verses, then melt together into perfect, wounded-but-resigned harmony as the song crests. The Weeknd also enhances the Bat For Lashes-esque title track, a sinewy Max Martin co-write with shadowy girl-group nods. The only real misstep is the hip-hop-tinted “Summer Bummer,” whose hyper cameos from A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti feel awkwardly wedged in.
Cracking open the door for collaborations is Del Rey’s smartest move to date, as it helps mitigate a certain amount of the record’s sleepiness, and this kind of incremental sonic expansion defines Lust For Life. Although the record has no shortage of obvious touchstones—“Cherry” recalls Portishead’s gloomy trip-hop; “Change” is Del Rey channeling ’90s Tori Amos; and “Love” swells with the kind of gothic, rain-streaked drama heard on The Cure’s Disintegration—it mostly avoids overcooked retro pastiches. Lust For Life espouses the strengths of simplicity and modernity: Its beats are subtle hip-hop twitches or electro-pop swells, with percussion redolent of faraway fireworks booms or mellifluous melodic washes.
While Del Rey’s voice remains firmly at the forefront, the spare arrangements encourage listeners to fill in their own emotional blanks for once. That alone makes Lust For Life her most absorbing record: It openly beckons listeners into her world, rather than challenging them to unlock it. This generosity is the biggest sign of Del Rey’s burgeoning confidence, and the work she’s put into her own personal life. It takes enormous strength to excise drama and toxic people, and actively strive to find happiness and be present. With Lust For Life, Del Rey is signaling that she’s well on her way to reaching equilibrium.
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