by NICK BUCHANAN
Just over three and a half years ago, we were introduced to a fresh-faced Lana Del Rey. She was initially ripped to shreds by critics after an awkward television debut on Saturday Night Live and scrutinized for the huge digital footprint of music released under different monikers that she left behind when she signed to a major label. Two albums, one extended play, and multiple soundtrack features later, here we are; she is now an unstoppable viral force and an unrecognizable live performer. Wasting no time atop her wave of popularity, Del Rey announced the release of Honeymoon, her third major label full-length album and fourth overall, last month. Just when her critics thought she was running out of steam, she has restocked her arsenal with all of the idiosyncrasies that set her apart.
Each of her releases have been stamped with a defining sound. Born to Die, her 2012 major-label debut album, introduced us to a self-proclaimed "gangster Nancy Sinatra" surrounded by lush forests of trip-hop drum machine clicks, brass instruments, and electronics. She shifted the extended play companion to her debut, Paradise, towards sweeping productions, with all eight tracks resonating with listeners as if they were punctuated with cinematic booms. Then came 2014's Ultraviolence, for which Del Rey took a unexpected step off her predicted sonic path; most of the album's 11 tracks were produced in collaboration with the Black Keys member Dan Auerbach, who convinced her to take a more open, alternative rock-leaning approach.
Now we have been handed Honeymoon: the album that, despite being her least cohesive, might embody her persona better than any of her other past works. Before its release, she revealed on Instagram that this album would have a blend of songs, "some with a muddy trap energy and some inspired by late-night Miles Davis drives." She originally lost me with the "muddy trap" comment, but it made perfect sense when she dropped lead single "High by the Beach" last month. The record expands more on this sound, but not as often as you may think; the record could be divided into three portions, with a smaller "muddy trap" middle portion dividing the "Miles Davis" beginning and end. Pull the production from Born to Die, take it all down a few steps gloomier, and finish it off with the ambiance and raw tone of Ultraviolence: You now have yourself a Honeymoon.
The triple-threat of "High by the Beach," "Freak," and "Art Deco" highlights the long-awaited return of those trap beats. Buried under layers of vocals, the drum machines aren't as prominent as they once were throughout Born to Die; now, they're blunt and implemented only as needed when choruses bloom. "High by the Beach," a vengeful declaration of independence from a man and the media, may be the farthest away from home base; her wispy vocal ad-libs are looped over a deep drum machine and a synthesizer straight out of a Las Vegas wedding chapel. And let's not forget "Freak," a song that Del Rey herself calls "very sexy." (After all, it wouldn't be a Lana Del Rey original without a few overtly sexual songs, right?) "Baby, if you wanna leave, come to California / Be a freak like me, too / Screw your anonymity / Loving me is all you need to feel like I do," she sings in the sultry sonic companion to a midnight drive through a grimy city with a lawless lover.
For better or for worse, she did retain a few tricks from her Ultraviolence sessions with Auerbach: muffled components of production, subtle imperfections in the vocals, and an overall ambiance that give listeners an impression of a certain authenticity. The intimate "Terrence Loves You" is the closest that she migrates back to that Ultraviolence feeling; the horns and keys brood and harmonies fall into dissonance in all the right places, allowing Del Rey's fragile vocals to gleam at the front and center of attention. In fact, Del Rey's voice takes precedence over the production as the main element of power on every track. Even in the denser production of "Music to Watch Boys To" and "Swan Song," her voice still doesn't get lost and makes itself a dominant force. She mentions an odd combination of pink flamingos, soft grunge, and voyeurism on "Music," alternating thin high notes with half-spoken low ones as she sings, "I like you a lot / Putting on my music while I'm watching the boys / So I do what you want / Singing soft grunge just to soak up the noise."
On a more passionate note, "Swan Song" may be few decades premature. She croons, "I will never sing again / And you won't work another day / I will never sing again / With one wave, it all goes away," over the ringing testament of her career, perhaps fueled by frustration with media intrusion. This isn't her only middle-finger statement to the industry and the media, either. We already talked about "High by the Beach," which is accompanied by a not-so-subtle music video that features Del Rey destroying a paparazzi helicopter mid-air with a machine gun, but I have yet to mention "God Knows I Tried." Through the hazy vocals and minimalist, guitar-based production, she reveals her adaptation (or lack thereof) to a constricting celebrity status: "I've got nothing much to live for ever since I found my fame." She's a far stretch from who we were introduced to as Lana Del Rey in 2012; while still an enigmatic character, her affinity for all things Hollywood seems to have been tainted in the past few years.
Lyrically, Del Rey has been, and always will be, a one-trick pony. Kiss me hard in the pouring rain under the pale moonlight while I drive fast in my red party dress with my bad baby, my daddy, my one true love, so on and so forth. If you hadn't picked up on this by now, what are you even doing here? This time around, she has scrapped her old, self-written book of Lana Del Clichés (trademark pending) in favor of just about anything that pleases her own aesthetic palate. Phrases like "You're so art deco, out on the floor / Baby, you're so ghetto, you're looking to score" and "So let's dance in slow motion / Tear it up, tear it up / Let's dance by the ocean / Ah, ah" are strange stretches for the sake of making a rhyme, but nothing outdoes the strangest lyric of them all from this record: "Salvatore can wait / Now it's time to eat soft ice cream." (It could be worse, though. A lot worse. We've all heard "Cola," haven't we? Yes? Okay, we're all on the same page here, then.)
Remember her favorite red party dress; the one she wore with her hair done up real big, beauty queen style? Yeah, forget about it; she sent it off to Goodwill. Blue is now Del Rey's go-to color. ("Give me all, got my blue nail polish on / It's my favorite color and my favorite tone of song," in "The Blackest Day," "Flames so hot that they turn blue" in "Freak," "All the lights in Miami begin to gleam ruby, blue, and green / Neon, too," in "Salvatore," and simply "Dark blue, dark blue, dark blue" in the title track. I left a few of the "blue" mentions out for you to find on your own. It won't be a hard search, I promise.) But where her lyrics fail or get repetitive, her vocal arrangements pull through, as is the case with "Salvatore" and "Honeymoon." The melody and production of "Salvatore" evoke enough striking Old Italian influences that they neutralize multiple mentions of soft ice cream, while the harmonies of the title track's chorus captivate everyone within earshot, even though she may only be repeating, "Our honeymoon / Say you want me, too / Dark blue."
Lana Del Rey sits pretty on her throne at the apex of the alternative pop pyramid, and Honeymoon holds her steady. While Ultraviolence drew her away from her comfort zone, this record lets her to bask in it. Perhaps that comfort comes with freedom, after already proving herself as an unshakable force with commendable album sales and a sold-out North American tour. Or maybe it comes from the safe haven of familiarity that the set was created in: the entire record was written and produced by Del Rey with longtime partner-in-crime Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies, minus her cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and the "Burnt Norton" interlude. Together, the three haphazardly melt moody noir jazz and muffled alt-pop to create a very Lana-esque atmosphere. Equal parts melancholy, reflective, and soothing, Honeymoon doesn't bring anything bright or new to the dark blue (dark blue, dark blue) skies of Del Rey's world, but sunny days were never in the forecast to begin with. (★★★★ out of five)
Honeymoon is out now under Interscope Records. Exclusive vinyl pressings can be found at Urban Outfitters.