It’s confession time.
I’m a sucker for a torch singer.
Put me in a dark, smokey lounge, sitting in a high back chair, whiskey in hand, with a lovely chanteuse on stage, and I’m practically in Heaven. There aren’t enough singers keeping this style alive these days.
Neko Case single-highhandedly carried the mantle for awhile, belting her way through Furnace Room Lullabies and Blacklisted, but then she transitioned to a more middle-of-the-road comfort zone.
Adele technically qualifies, but she’s too popular these days.
Kimbra, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Duffy and Caitlin Rose have great potential, and have offered some wonderful songs on their recent discs. Kimbra, in particular, seems poised to breakout, especially with her vocals on Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know” catching fire.
About five months ago, I stumbled across a video on YouTube for “Kinda Outta Luck” by Lana Del Rey. The song immediately struck me with its retro-lounge, Nancy Sinatra-esque vibe, but more, it felt fresh and contemporary.
Instead of merely aping a style, the song stood on its own, and the lyrics were kitschy, but infinitely cool:
femme fatale/always on the run/diamonds on my wrist/whiskey on my tongue
It didn’t hurt that Del Rey had pinup looks, a head full of cascading blonde curls, mischievous eyes and pouty, bee-stung lips.
I quickly began searching for her album, only to find myself running into walls. A handful of songs were available online, including the haunting “Video Games” and coy “Blue Jeans,” but as for an album, no dice.
It didn’t dawn on me at the time that Lana Del Rey could be more marketing foil than femme fatale, a digital age coquette, devoid of talent.
Months later, we all know the story: Elizabeth Grant, aka Lizzy Grant, aka Lana Del Rey, was an aspiring singer/model with a wealthy family who bankrolled her early musical exploits who, as Lizzy Grant, released an album in 2010 that went nowhere. That album apparently, now rumored to be in turnaround for re-release, included many of the songs long-since available online, but not “Kinda Outta Luck.”
When the first stab didn’t take, Grant went in for the kill. She signed with Interscope Records and reinvented herself as the sex-kitten cabaret singer, Lana Del Rey.
Grant is not the first entertainer to use a fake name. You couldn’t swing a dead cat at the Grammy’s without hitting dozens of people being called by something other than their birth name. People shouldn’t blame her for that, and if they do, they’re no longer allowed to scream “I love you Bono and The Edge” at the next U2 world tour.
At least she picked a pretty cool name.
Before her second debut album, Born To Die, arrived in late January, Lana Del Rey fever was spreading faster than the bat-pig flu in “Contagion.” As is often the case with round-the-clock attention, fatigue set in and critics and skeptics began sharpening their knives, waiting for the first, best opportunity to carve her into pieces.
Anyone not named Courtney Stodden would have been shitting bricks because that first, best opportunity just happened to be performing on Saturday Night Live. And Lana Del Rey wilted on the biggest stage she had yet to play.
She didn’t just wilt, she flamed out in spectacular fashion. Her vocals wandered, her presence waned. She had a bad night, but the backlash, wow, the backlash came from all corners. Even NBC news anchor Brian Williams weighed in, calling her the worst performer ever to play SNL.
That’s pretty harsh considering some of the acts that have been showcased on the long-running sketch comedy show. Apparently Williams never saw Ashley Simpson do a chicken dance after her vocal track playback cut out and she was exposed as a lip-synching fool.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t really care if Lizzy Grant/Lana Del Rey can put on a show. I’m not interested in sitting inside a packed arena, waiting for some kind of Lady Gaga performance spectacle. I just love her voice, and on Born To Die, her voice commands attention.
The best songs aren’t even the ones that likely will receive airplay.
“National Anthem” is a cooing, rich girl manifesto with operatic flourishes.
I’m your national anthem/God, you’re so handsome/Take me to the Hamptons/Bugatti Veyron/He loves to romance them/Reckless abandon/Holdin’ me for ransom/upper echelon
“Radio” is a swirling tease, rich with annunciation that skirts the border of saccharine cute, but manages to stay on the right side of good and not come off as cliched.
Now my life is sweet like cinnamon/like a fucking dream I’m living in/Baby love me cause I’m playing on the radio/Pick me up and take me like a vit-a-min/’cause my body’s sweet like sugar venom
As evidenced by these snippets, Del Rey is not trying to reinvent the wheel with her lyrics. But she does offer some clever phrasings, and she sneaks in a few observations that take hold and linger.
“This Is What Makes Us Girls” is near as close to depth as the album offers, a slow-building ballad that considers how women are often perceived, and not necessarily how they really feel.
This is what makes us girls/We all look for heaven and we put our love first/Somethin’ that we’d die for, it’s our curse/Don’t cry about it, don’t cry about it/This is what makes us girls
The bottom line, for me, anyway, is that Born to Die is an immensely listenable album, rich with songs that stick in your ear and catchy choruses that trip easily off the tongue.
Who knows if Lana Del Rey is the real deal, an artist who will continue to evolve and carve her own place in music history, or if she is just the latest fad, destined to be a Trivial Pursuit question years from now. Whatever the future holds, I’m content just to have these few songs to play and enjoy. And for that, I consider this Essential Listening.