For me, a good Lana song does two things: 1) makes me fall asleep and 2) gives me edgy inspiration upon further examination (the next morning, as it usually turns out). So it should come as no surprise that The Next Best American Record happened to be the first song from Norman Fucking Rockwell! that I fell for — the nonsensical lyrics are so fun to decode, though they probably mean nothing, and the song drags on and on and on until it leaves me in the perfect slumber — enviable merits, I know.
When Mariners Apartment Complex first dropped, I can’t say that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the raving reviews as much as I was intrigued by the new, more atmospheric direction that Lana decided to take, as opposed to the gradual popification of the Honeymoon-Lust for Life track. The subsequent 10-minute Venice Bitch and longest-title-ever hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it solidified my anticipation for an unconventional rollout (although a one-year release campaign was wholly unanticipated). Once released, though, the album commanded massive praise. Critics have called it a “pop classic” and Lana “the next best American songwriter.” They also loved associating the album with the American dream and other aspects of the nation’s iconography, then slabbing on the label “Lana del Rey’s persona” across it. Now, it’s not that I’m not interested in the “nation’s most twisted fantasies of glamour and danger,” but I would like to think of the album as more personal than that, more personal to Lana and more personal to one’s own story. Personal love. Personal hope. Personal despair.
“Like if you hold me without hurting me,” she sings on Cinnamon Girl, “you’ll be the first who ever did,” which furthers the dark and shattered love as depicted by “I’m a fuckin’ mess, but I, oh, thanks for the high life” in Love song. The pain is renewed in Happiness is a butterfly: “if he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl who’s already hurt? I’m already hurt.” On the other hand, hope also inhabits the record — namely on hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it, where Lana admits she’s neither happy nor sad, but at least hopeful. How to disappear captures a similar sentiment:
The California sun and the movie stars
I watch the skies getting light as I write
As I think about those years
As I whisper in your ear:
I’m always going to be right here
No one’s going anywhere
It paints a comforting picture, one of yearning and promise — it makes me feel like I’m wrapped in a luxurious shawl of California sunset while reminiscing what the summer of 2019 was like and simultaneously dreaming of what the summer of 2020 could have been.
California is the more complete version of The Next Best American Record, with similar qualities and lyrics that actually tell a story this time. “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are, you don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should” conveys, through the contrast between an extravagant welcome-back party and someone long gone, a message of carpe diem. Lana misses a lot of things in Norman Fucking Rockwell!: Long Beach, New York, the music. She misses a “crazy love” and someone who hates the heat and got the blues. It’s not hard to understand: she’s now in her thirties, no longer the girl who writes solely about decadent youth and superfluous melancholy, so perhaps the album deserves praise from this perspective — growth. It’s her Best American Record, her personal masterpiece, her passion and truth, memories and wishes.
I’ve been thinking about Norman Fucking Rockwell! a lot lately, and I guess it’s partly because I need help falling asleep when days start to blend together, and partly because the album feels especially present. The songwriting is, no doubt, as lush and smart as I had known, but it’s only now that I’ve started to grapple an important by-product of the psychedelic sound, a world descending into chaos, a one-last sentimental look back at what life used to be and what’s no longer there. The subdued yearning for the past mirrors the urge for normalcy in a global crisis: a lot of things to miss in both instances. But I guess it’s not just the despair that resonates with the current times, it’s also the hope. It’s getting warmer in Los Angeles (which makes me miss, somewhat, the chilly mornings when I had to wake up at 6 to attend Zoom University — how masochistic of me). Summer is coming, the best batch of loquat is ready for picking, the crisis-mode-marked-by-six-feet-apart-crosses line at Costco, well, probably hasn’t actually changed but subconsciously it seems shorter. After all, it’s not just you and me who are not going anywhere: “no one’s going anywhere,” and as Lana famously said: “the culture is lit.”
“And if this is it, I had a ball.”