After a decade of releasing some of the most restlessly romantic soft-pop anthems ever recorded, there are now millions of millennials whose top relationship goal is to find someone to space out to Lana Del Rey with. With material as good as what appears on Del Rey’s Normal Rockwell, it’s not a bad aspiration to have.
Everything that has made Del Rey a lovestricken superstar is here in spades. Orchestral intros followed by delightful piano chord progressions, distorted guitars, synthetic waves, swaying melodic undercurrents, heady mood setting, and, above all else, Del Rey’s melodramatic yet commanding alto voice. Reliable hitmaker Jack Antonoff (who may be the artist of the year) lends a hand with some nice guitar work and wildly spaced-out synth work like in the 10-minute single “Venice” or the sudden first verse-following break in “the greatest.” And when Del Rey reaches into her upper register on “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it” and the title track, the result is magical.
While the musicianship is never in question, what really makes Del Rey one of the great artists of our age is her masterful conveyance of hopeless romanticism and her ability to make the mundane seem grandiose (a trait all great writers possess). “Why wait for the best when I could have you,” she asks an off again, on again lover in the title track. “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are when you’re lying in my arms” she croons later on the show-stopping “California.” Even when she finds herself facing down the inherent fear that accompanies the beginning of all great relationships (“If you hold me without hurting me you’ll be the first who ever did,” she whispers on “Cinnamon Girl”), the result is always endearing and somehow even empowering.
But Del Rey’s muse is not limited to romantic relationships with other people; at the forefront of Norman Rockwell is her affinity for the Rock n’ Roll spirit that she continues to keep alive in today’s musical landscape. From name-dropping Led Zeppelin’s legendary Houses of the Holy to dreaming about her time hanging out at an old bar frequented by The Beach Boys to referencing Cyndi Lauper and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in the same paragraph, Del Rey’s musical influences are never in question regardless of whether her younger listeners recognize them (not to mention the brilliant painter whose name the album title invokes).
The most common criticism Del Rey gets as an artist is similar to the one levied at AC/DC back in the day; she basically wrote one song and has re-recorded over and over again. It’s a fair criticism to a degree; by the time you reach “Bartender” in this marathon of a record, it’s hard to recall the difference between “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “How to disappear” from earlier in the album. But like Del Rey said when defending her choice to make “Venice” a single over the complaints of her label ,“Some people just wanna drive around and get lost in electric guitar.” When the vibes are this sublime, it turns out that’s a lot of us.