There's plenty that already seems off when looking at Lana Del Rey's latest album "Lust for Life." Ever since her breakthrough in 2012, she has been seen as a bit of a curmudgeon; self-involved and arguably more of a basket case than Taylor Swift. So to see her smile on the cover of her latest album is a bit jarring when compared to the more morosely named "Born to Die" or "Ultraviolence." In fact, the album has a subtle jubilee to the entire thing that suggests that maybe, just maybe, the saddest and most unique pop star in the game is starting to light up. Either that, or she's finally at the right age to use nostalgia and makes it sound right in her songs. Whatever the case may be, she remains one of the most fascinating young performers out there, even as her latest album feels a bit overlong.
The optimism of Lana Del Rey comes immediately in an unassuming way. Instead of opening her album with another morose cry of death or break-up, she begins by addressing the youth. It's a strange thing for the 32-year-old performer to do, but "Love" is a bit nostalgic even as it fades into an ominous beat. She discusses vintage music and the joys of being young and in love. She does so in her familiar deep serenading voice that builds to one of her career-best choruses. This whole album has a cinematic feel that requires a good pair of headphones and patience for what works. She is a songstress telling stories, and in the process finally allowing herself to play nice with others. "Love" welcomes the next generation of nostalgic 20-somethings that will go through her familiar highs and lows. They may be drama queens or use memorable song references wholesale to add personal poignancy. It doesn't matter. As she sings, it's enough to be young and in love.
In some ways, this is probably the best possible follow-up to "Born to Die": her breakthrough album that featured an odd collection of more Top 40 friendly beats, even amid her brooding subject matter. The albums after have tended towards more cinematic, poetic songs akin to classical R&B. Lana Del Rey is after all a performer lost in time, finding fascination with the tragic performers who gave their lives for fame and entertainment. It only makes sense that, even if as caricature, she would draw inspiration from it. She embodies nostalgia better than anyone else, and her heart comes through stronger as a result. However, "Lust for Life" sees her return the familiar edgy girl to something more contemporary.
Among the jarring updates of her style is the presence of collaborators. She has largely been a solo act until "Lust for Life," and she is better off finally opening up to others. Yes, she is still candid and sad. However, mixing her voice with Oscar-nominated artist The Weeknd on the title track takes her atmosphere to something more inspiring. The song starts as a familiar track of hers, but the ballad nature makes the risque imagery into something more beautiful. By the chorus, you're bought into a new and optimistic intimacy. She also features rapper A$AP Rocky on two tracks ("Groupie Love" and "Summer Bummer"), which are the closest that she gets to doing something other than classical pop.
Still, it's her ability to have a specific personality that grounds the entire album. She is still sad and frustrated, even amid the new endorphin of joy. "13 Beaches" is almost classic Lana Del Rey in that it opens with her looking for an empty beach. Still, the other songs here see a once apolitical artist starting to define her issues regarding patriotism. "God Bless America and All the Beautiful Women in It" is an empowering ballad mixed with occasional gunshots. The same could be said for "When the World Was at War, We Kept Dancing." Yes, the titles are a bit silly, but her earnestness sells them within verse. As a girl who loves California and 60's culture, it makes sense that these songs almost feel like odes to Vietnam War anthems, even if they're still personally about her. Her retro style has continued to evolve, and she has become more interesting the more that she writes about things other than her misery (which is a key issue with the tepid "White Mustang").
With that said, her misery has become more interesting as she has allowed other artists on. Having admitted to putting a hex on the president, her collaboration with Stevie Nicks ("Beautiful People With Beautiful Problems") feels like an overdue achievement. It's a wonderful song that takes her self-involved problems into a familiar poignancy. Still, her strangely referential duet with Sean Ono Lennon ("Tomorrow Never Came") is probably the best track on the album, using Bob Dylan lyrics to explain the heartbreak of a lover who was too distant. By allowing Lennon to sing a countermeasure to her struggles, it becomes almost universal and a whole lot sadder. The lyrics may be a tad filled with tropes, but the execution is just as beautiful as ever.
With that said, "Lust for Life" is a bit on the long side, hitting too many familiar notes to be as concrete as her previous (and best to date) album "Honeymoon." Still, her vocal work here is further proof that if she's not the best pop artist currently working, she's among the most interesting. She has created an image that is backed by her great harmonies and her ability to add small touches to each lyrical exchange. By adding duets to the album, she has finally found a way to become more accessible and interesting. One can only hope that this continues to be the case as time goes on. For now, this album is very much a Lana Del Rey album, whether you like it or not.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5