Saturday, October 16, 2021

#4 Born To Die - Lana del Rey

Sometimes, when I used to do lists like this back in the '80s and '90s, I'd add some rules and restrictions just so one person or act or theme couldn't roll the rest over, crush them, leave them gasping on the margins, done.  It would have happened. You like something, you like it, or that's how it works with me. 

I didn't exactly do that this time but I was always aware I only had twenty-five spots to fill and three or four artists together could have taken every last one of them. Jane Weaver, Lloyd Cole, Lana... I had to show some restraint.

Let's see. How many albums has Lana del Rey released in the last twenty-five years? Seven, counting #21 in this list, Lana Del Ray (AKA Lizzy Grant.) I guess eight, if you factor in Sirens, the collection of songs she recorded as May Jailer but never released (and that would be on here if she had, trust me.)

And how many did I include? Four. That's pretty restrained of me. 

Looking at the list now, it's obvious it should have been five, at least, Why I left Ultraviolence out beats me. I mean, the title track, Brooklyn Baby, Fucked My Way Up to the Top, West Coast... some of the greats there. And it hangs together as an album, not just a collection of songs.

Honeymoon and Lust For Life don't, really. I can understand why. They're the plateau of Lana's uncertain period, I think, when she was still stretching out into who she wanted to be. A pop star, among other things, which explains a lot of the guest artists and the lack of coherency. There's a bit of a trying on hats, maybe.  

The songs are still great, some of them. The two albums between them gave me some of my all-time favorites - Terence Loves You, God Knows I Tried, Love, White Mustang - but honestly, reading the track listings now, I see a surprising number of titles I barely recognize. 

Strange, when you think I listened to both those albums dozens of times. Although now I come to think of it, mostly I didn't do that. What I did was cue up the songs I liked best and skip the rest. 

It's not that there were any I didn't like. About the only thing I've ever heard Lana do that I never liked are a couple of covers. I don't believe anyone in the world can sing Blue Velvet straight and not make it sound like the dullest tune ever written.

It's just that Lana doing mainstream pop with respectful guests and overfussy production is not my favorite Lana. And that has a tiny bit to do with why I had to think for a while before I put Born To Die in at #4. 

There's certainly no question of my not recognizing any of the titles here. Fifteen tracks on the CD release I own, the one with the bonus tracks, and I could sing you at least a chorus and a few lines of any of them. Okay, maybe not Million Dollar Man. All the others, though. And every single track is stunningly good. Or, perhaps I should say, every single song. Because here's the thing: I knew quite a few of these songs from demo versions I'd listened to a hundred times on YouTube before the album came out and when I finally got to hear the official, released versions...

I didn't like them quite as much. Oh, hey, will you look at that? "Better in beta" works for music, too! Or maybe it's just the old "The original's always the best" trope kicking in. As in, the first version sets the needle. Everything after gets compared.

If I'd heard Born To Die first and then the demos later, the way it usually goes with records, maybe I'd be here eulogizing the official version and not even mentioning the sketches. Never gonna know, are we? But I did hear those takes first - a little rougher, a little rawer, a little faster, a little brasher - and I can't unhear them.

None of which should undercut the power, the glory of Born To Die as we have it. It's just the most glorious sequence of confident, driving, assertive performances, the rising storm of the music always driving the words forward like scattered, flurried leaves, fragments breaking free, spiralling, soaring, falling back.    


And the subjects, the stories, the characters. Brave, lost, lonely, knowing, self-deluding, empty, hopeless, yearning, wishing, needing. Lyrics that haunt and harrow and beat back the darkness, just once, just once more, just one more time...

A thing that puzzles me now is how, then, and this would be, what, almost ten years ago, I didn't see how sublime, how well-crafted, assured, skilled Lana's lyrics already were. Sure, now, in the two albums that top this list, it's obvious, apparent, undeniable. Everyone knows. Hard to believe but back in 2012 I thought a few of the lines were a little awkward, an image here or there over-familiar, used. 

I know better now. Of course, I am terrible with lyrics. I only ever hear them in shards, fragments, momentary squalls of language, meaning fractured, bleeding out. You can put them right in front of me and I stare right past. My copy of Born To Die even has a full lyric sheet and I still didn't pay attention.

Oh well, you live and you learn. And, honestly, sometimes I think it's the words you don't hear that carry the greatest charge. The space between, that's where the meaning falls and where it lies. 

Enough, I think. We'll be dancing about architecture next. Talk about cliches.

Three more and then we sleep.

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