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There’s a moment on Lana Del Rey’s fourth record, Lust For Life, that should hit her biggest fans (or as Hipster Runoff dudebros in 2011 once called them, apologists) harder than nearly all of her lyrical catalog. For those listeners that once found themselves entranced with the smoky voice totally consumed, and maybe a little depressed, by the moments of quiet domesticity with her lover on “Video Games,” it should come as a revelation to hear that same voice turned outward to the world around her: “We get so tired and we complain / Bout how it’s hard to live / It’s more than just a video game.”

This watchful eye on a world in turmoil is a motif across Lust For Life- which, in the early days of the promotional cycle for the album, seemed worrying considering all the obligatory “political pop” done so inelegantly by her peers. Still, if any major voice in pop music seemed fit for the challenge, it was Lana- an artist so deeply reliant on iconic Americana imagery that even the slightest shift away could seem like a revolution.

Rather than an overt political statement, or a full 180 pivot from the funeral dirge pace of Honeymoon and much of Ultraviolence, we get a refreshing, earnest, occasionally bizarre record that attempts to reckon with what it means to be young and almost entirely free, despite a looming threat of that freedom being stripped from you.

The biggest surprise of the album is the total sea change in her lyrical style- critics of Del Rey’s first two albums lamented the relentless rehashing of the doomed love story: helpless sad girl with a dark side falls for the addict, the loser, the bad boy. By the end of Ultraviolence, a record that doubled down on these themes and drowned them in psychedelic instrumentation, it was clear that her little black book of drugs, literature references, and rock ‘n’ roll had been wrung for all it was worth. While Lana shifted her persona to something a little more empowered on her third album Honeymoon, (“You could be a bad motherf*cker, but that don’t make you a man”, “the truth is I never bought into your bulls*it”), it was still fundamentally a part of the LDR ethos. Here on Lust For Life, Lana’s lyrics are direct, poetic, and often a little folksy.

Take album highlight “Cherry,” for example, in which she constructs metaphors more elegant and straightforward than anything found in the ill-fated love stories of Ultraviolence. “I say real love is like feeling no fear when you’re standing in the face of danger, ’cause you just want it so much.” The same goes for the truly lacerating “In My Feelings,” the G-Eazy diss track that packs the punch that “F*cked My Way Up To The Top” should have on Ultraviolence. “I’m smoking while I’m running on my treadmill, but I’m coming up roses- could it be that I fell for another loser?” Never before has Lana sounded so full of perspective and self-awareness, finally given a moment away from being embroiled in melodrama. On these more traditional Lana tracks- love songs, or lost love songs- her lyrics give the impression that she’s finally of clear mind. When she lets out an exasperated “F*ck!” at the end of “Cherry,” it sounds like relief.

On the more overtly political tracks, like “Tomorrow Never Came” and “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” backed by Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks respectively, Lana proves herself as a worthy, true Americana songwriter. Particularly on “Tomorrow,” Lana’s hushed, breathy voice and the breezy acoustic guitar that accompanies it genuinely embody that classic, 60’s sound she’s always idolized, but drowned in the hip-hop beats found on Born To Die. Much of Lust for Life’s second half is delivered with a sort of patience, a casualness, a smiling that’s damn near unheard of in the world of Lana Del Rey. It’s easy to imagine these songs soundtracking hot summer nights, unwinding with your friends on the back porch as the party comes to a close. Lennon and Nicks enter Lana’s world without disturbing it- their harmonies on these songs are lush and emotional.

Despite all of these successes, Lust For Life is not without its missteps. There’s something about the record as a whole that feels truly incohesive. The dreary, swaggering hip-hop of “Summer Bummer,” which employs A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti (the latter of whom’s sole contribution involves alternating between “Yah!” and “Wap wap wap wap”), is an interesting change of pace for Lana with an infectious hook, but it’s a complete tonal misfire on a record that otherwise ditches the debaucherous lyrical tendencies of her past work. The same can be said for the album’s title track, which features The Weeknd and a song structure that sounds like portions of four completely different songs were sloppily strewn together. “God Bless America – And The Beautiful Women In It” goes for a knowing wink as the hyphen in its title is replaced by two gunshot sounds on the hook, but winds up landing in total cheeseball territory as her vocals are delivered like she’s singing an actual American traditional standard.

Lust For Life could have also found greater success through editing. While “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind,” was initially reported to be excluded from the album’s final track listing, it appears here as the album’s centerpiece unchanged, which is a real shame, because it sounds like a rushed and cheap demo from the Born To Die sessions, and the concept behind the song itself is ultimately too meta to mine for anything interesting. The flat, bland chorus of “White Mustang” sucks all the life out of the track, especially when compared alongside “Change,” another stark piano ballad that outshines it completely. While “Heroin” and “Get Free” wind up shining after multiple listens to the album, by the time you get to their place in the tracklist, your stamina for her midtempo songwriting has already long since run out. And again, that’s a real shame, because the final minute of “Get Free,” a dreamy and psychedelic instrumental section, ties the album together in a way that feels absolutely perfect. Lana stuck the landing, but by the time I got there, I’d already lost interest.

Ultimately, on Lust For Life, Lana steps out of her own head for a while, and after three albums nearly entirely dedicated to defining “Lana-ness,” it’s a breath of fresh air to hear her sing over the sounds that made her. It’s an especially nice surprise to find her thriving in a similar political and artistic climate as her idols. However, the strange pairing of trippy, synth-heavy tracks with some hippyish Americana tunes makes the album as a whole feel strange and out of focus, especially as the sheer length and pace of the album wears down on the listener.

Still, the life that her new lyrical perspective shakes into her music can only make you think that, like the country Lana sings so fondly of, her music is in a state of transition. In an interview leading up to the album, Lana was asked about a song called “Yosemite,” which she’d teased leading up to the album, but was ultimately left on the cutting room floor. “It was too happy- we’re not there yet,” she explained with a laugh. While Lana’s world was once only blackLust For Life proves an emotional range never before seen on a Lana record that promises a future that may be much brighter than ever before- “Out from the black / and into the blue.”

Rating: B-

Listen to Lust For Life on Apple Music.

Nick Malone is a sophomore studying Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Read more of his work for UIC Radio here.
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