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Dissected Long Before Her Debut

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Andy Sheppard/Redferns, via Getty Images
IT’S already difficult to remember Lana Del Rey, but let’s try. She was a meme of 2011, a singer who emerged seemingly fully formed from the ether who was in short order revealed to be, get this, a singer who was not always fully formed. That moll with the dangerous tastes in men and pastimes and the puffed-out lips and hair? That songwriter who used words like “velvet” and “exotic” in the tiki-lounge way of overemphasizing noir culture? Yep, it was a pose, cut from existing, densely patterned cloth. Just like all the other poses. And all the other cloths.

This week brings “Born to Die” (Interscope), Ms. Del Rey’s major-label debut album, but by no means the first of her many lives. This is album as anticlimax, the period that ends the essay, not the beginning of a new paragraph.

It is an island, this album, part of no movement. It was produced by Emile Haynie, who is known best for his atmospheric, theatrical work with Kid Cudi, but who here has codified an alluring style so solid it shows Ms. Del Rey’s flaws in stark relief. The music is slow and full, a smoky mid-1960s cinema soundtrack, deployed pristinely, with crackling hip-hop drums setting the pace. It lulls and stirs and feels like one portent of doom after another. If it’s close to anything it’s to Portishead and the other gauzy British trip-hop of the early- to mid-1990s, which traded aggression for atmosphere, and leaned heavily on drama.

On top of music like that, anything shy of full commitment would underwhelm, and over the course of this album, that’s just what happens. Ms. Del Rey has an idea about her presentation, which counts for something — to some it counts for everything — but her singing still sounds like a road test. “Born to Die” doesn’t solve Ms. Del Rey’s problems because it isn’t aware of them; it’s a multiple choice test with every answer scanned “C.”

Ms. Del Rey, 25, can do better, most likely, or at least different. Earlier, under the name Lizzy Grant, she put out a Lilith Fair-worthy release called “Kill Kill,” that’s sprightly by comparison to “Born to Die.” On the new album four-minute songs feel like seven or eight, so packed are they with short verses and bridges and changes and Sturm und Drang, to say nothing of Ms. Del Rey’s languor, which can verge on pallor.

That was certainly the affect when she performed on “Saturday Night Live” a couple of weeks ago, looking uncertain, like a child singing her grandmother’s favorite songs, dressed in her grandmother’s clothes. The persistent purr she nails on her record was here punctuated with evident breaths and awkward silences.
When she hit her lower register, it was bumpy, as if she needed a backhoe. Her eyes avoided the cameras.
It wasn’t much better at the Bowery Ballroom last month, in her first proper New York concert, where she appeared resistant to the need to be polished, or even prepared.

Maybe Ms. Del Rey is self-immolating. And if so, maybe it’s from reluctance, not lack of talent. Sometimes you make choices, and circumstances force you to have to stick by them. If the Internet hadn’t glommed onto Ms. Del Rey’s video for “Video Games,” which she made herself and released last August, maybe she’d have shrugged her shoulders and moved on to another pose. But notoriety has a way of freezing its targets, and so Ms. Del Rey doubled down in her amber.

It hasn’t helped, maybe because one has to wear clothes for a long time before they fit well. Her success has been presented a fait accompli, largely because of the intensity of ire she arouses: anything dissected this aggressively must be important, no?

No, not really. Whether from boredom or schadenfreude or sexism or rockism, she’s taken an unfair amount of guff: Ms. Del Rey is a fraud! That’s not even her real name! Her father is a heavy in the domain-name industry! She has fuller lips now! Those who discovered Ms. Del Rey on “SNL” — yes, those people still exist — and choose to learn more about her online will find a grotesque, not-at-all hidden background story, like an especially troubling Carfax report on a pristine-looking roadside sale find.

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