Review: 'Norman F—ing Rockwell' balances style and substance

by Jack Hargrove | 10/15/19 2:05am

“Norman F—ing Rockwell!” is easily Lana Del Rey’s best work to date. Upon its reveal, the cover art of “NFR!” created a considerable amount of controversy within Lana Del Rey’s fanbase. While her previous covers all use similar bold fonts for the title of the album and feature cinematic images of Del Rey alone with a car and wearing white, conservative outfits, “NFR!” goes in a different direction. 

The art — which consists of a picture of Del Rey in a neon green windbreaker on a boat, one arm wrapped around Jack Nicholson’s grandson and the other reaching out to the viewer with “NFR!” and “LDR” in bright, comic-book lettering — seems gaudy and kitschy at first glance. However, a closer look reveals that the Southern California landscape in the background is on fire, and the sky above is painted. The idyllic foreground juxtaposed with the flaming background reveals the turmoil behind Del Rey’s image of pristine mid-century American nostalgia, while the painted sky implies that none of the joy depicted can be real.

Both of these themes are central to the album, and combined with a departure from her previous albums, this cover is ultimately the perfect representation of what the album itself delivers. On “NFR!,” Del Rey, with the help of producer Jack Antonoff, fully realizes her potential as a songwriter and finally sounds truly authentic.

Lana Del Rey, the stage name of Elizabeth Grant, has always had a unique take on pop music. Her debut single “Video Games” and the subsequent 2012 album “Born to Die” featured chamber pop instrumentation and pop vocals over downtempo hip-hop beats. However, her lyrics have always been overshadowed by her 1950s-obsessed persona; in fact, she has previously called herself the “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” This style-over-substance approach has crippled her music in the past, making it feel inauthentic. However, on “NFR!,” her fifth album, Lana has teamed up with pop afficianado Jack Antonoff, who produced Taylor Swift’s “1989” and Lorde’s “Melodrama.” The result is a deeply personal portrait of Del Rey’s mental state sung over Antonoff’s minimalistic piano and guitar work.

“Godd—n, man-child/You f—ed me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you,’” sings Del Rey in “Norman f—ing Rockwell,” the titular track. These are the lyrics that kick off the album and introduce the listener to the central relationship of the album. The man that Del Rey is dating is, in many aspects, contemptible. As she describes him on the track, he is a “self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all,” an immature grown man who writes bad poetry and blames all of his problems on others. And yet, despite it all, there’s something about this man that makes Del Rey happy. 

This positive side to the relationship is explored in depth in the nine-minute-long third track “Venice B—.” Here, Del Rey reflects on the early days of the relationship with nostalgia, culminating with the line, “Oh God, miss you on my lips/It’s me, your little Venice b—,” yearning for the days when everything was simpler. The nickname “Venice b—” is a reference to the well-known Venice Beach in Southern California, one of many references on the album to the Southern California way of life. The track ends with a six-minute psychedelic outro, in which Del Rey’s singing fades into the background while Antonoff’s distorted, hazy guitar work takes over. This track is easily the longest and most experimental in Del Rey’s discography, yet it remains thoroughly interesting throughout and never overstays its welcome.

On “Mariners Apartment Complex,” Del Rey exhibits easily the sharpest and most mature songwriting of her entire career. The opening lines, “You took my sadness out of context/At the Mariners Apartment Complex/I ain’t no candle in the wind,” and the chorus, “You lose your way, just take my hand/You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again/Don’t look too far, right where you are, that’s where I am/I’m your man,” display a complexity never before seen on a Lana Del Rey project. Gone are the days of “Born to Die” and “Ultraviolence, where much of her writing felt like” it was trying too hard to sound like teenage angst and was very much a victim of style over substance. 

Other highlights in the track listing include “F— it, I love you,” a piano ballad in which Del Rey reckons with her past troubles with alcoholism and addiction. In “The greatest,” Del Rey creates a very nostalgic track in which she sings about missing New York, her lover and Kanye West, of all things. On this track, she also laments — “The culture is lit and I had a ball” — one of the most clever lines on the album referring to the people of the world having fun while the world itself is in flames. “Doin’ Time,” Del Rey’s trip-hop cover of the 1997 single by Long Beach, CA ska band Sublime, may seem out of place on an album in which all of the other lyrics are written by Del Rey and Antonoff. However, the lyrics detailing an emotionally abusive relationship fit into the album’s narrative well, and the dark, trip-hop production meshes with the rest of the record. Finally, “California,” my favorite track, is a slow piano ballad in which Del Rey implores someone important to “hit [her] up” if he ever returns to California. This song features Del Rey’s voice at its most raw, with her voice layered over itself in dissonant harmony.

While this album is easily Del Rey at her best, there are a few tracks that certainly could be improved. “The Next Best American Record,” which is the weakest track on the album, is a leftover from Del Rey’s previous album “Lust For Life.” This is very clear in the context of “NFR!,” as the lyrics are significantly weaker than those on the other tracks. While not awful, the writing on the other tracks is so stellar that the only okay writing on this track really stands out in a negative way. 

In “Love song,” Del Rey continues the narrative of the relationship in the album. While the writing on this track is just as good as anywhere else on the album, the instrumentation is rather lackluster and dull, making it one of the more forgettable tracks. 

The song “Bartender” is an interesting case; its lyrics about Del Rey buying a truck in the middle of the night and leaving town are well-written and interesting, and its sparse instrumentation serves to heighten the melancholy and need for escape found in the lyrics. However, as a whole, it feels unfinished, and it should have been reworked into a more complete form on the record. 

The penultimate track “Happiness is a butterfly” wraps up the story of the relationship introduced in the first track with the line, “I said, ‘Don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi’/Sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat, ooh,” implying a fight that finally ends the relationship. Given that this narrative is such a major part of the album, this ending is not entirely satisfying, and certainly could have been resolved in a more impactful way.

Despite the mediocre songs that precede it, the final track, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it,” not only provides a perfect conclusion to the album, but also sums up Del Rey’s persona perfectly. Peppered throughout the song are references to poet Sylvia Plath, who suffered from depression throughout her life and committed suicide at age 30. Del Rey relates many of her feelings to those of Plath, finding solace in her writing. At the climax of the chorus, Del Rey declares, “Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not/But at best, I can say I’m not sad,” which gives a window into her mental state. She also claims that “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have” repeatedly in the song, but at the very end of the song, she adds, “But I have it,” ending the album with a ray of hope. In spite of everything that has happened to her, Del Rey defiantly holds on to hope.

In “NFR!,” Del Rey manages to improve her sound, lyrics and image in every way while still sounding like herself. In fact, much has stayed the same from her previous records. She maintains her obsession with vintage Americana and pop culture, and the songs are littered with references to the Beach Boys, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joni Mitchell, Sylvia Plath and Led Zeppelin. The album title itself references American painter Norman Rockwell, whose artwork of the classical American experience greatly informs Del Rey’s expectations for her life with her lover. 

In this album, Del Rey finally finds the perfect balance of style and substance. No longer are her lyrics and music overpowered by the image that she is trying to sell. Lana Del Rey finally feels like a real person, not just a character created by Elizabeth Grant, and this newfound authenticity not only results in one of the most enthralling albums of the year, but also allows her to become one of the great American songwriters.