1) and 2) Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon (Interscope) and Jon Caramanica, “Lana Del Rey: She’d Be Sad, if She Cared (Which She Doesn’t),” New York Times (September 17). When Lana Del Rey appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2012 to sing “Video Games,” in effect her national debut, she really did look like a debutante: long gown which didn’t exactly fit, an air of nerves. It struck me as the exact opposite of the normal SNL musical spot: uncertain, unfinished, and most of all not obvious—the most radical music on the show in ages. It brought forth a storm of derision, so unrelenting that not long after the show parodied its own former guest in the person of Kristen Wiig in a floppy long-hair wig, embarrassing prom dress, and wan face.
You might realize, listening to Lana Del Rey’s new, most fully realized album, comparable in its way to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, that her songs slip when even a hint of the specific breaks the spell. In “Art Deco,” the words “You’re so art deco” take you away from the pure, liquid syllables of the opening lines, away from the way the song can feel like a cloud passing in front of the moon. There’s no way to pin this music down—and at its best Lana Del Rey’s music never wholly comes across right away. It reveals itself over time. Play the album, come back two weeks later, play it again, and you might find yourself listening to a different record.
There are hints of a rock ’n’ roll frame of reference—or something like a penumbra — all through this music: “Hotel California” in the words and Duane Eddy in the opening notes for “God Knows I Tried,” the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes” in “Terrence Loves You,” even Connie Francis in “Music to Watch Boys To.” None of it matters. The strongest songs impose their own gravity, and nothing escapes it: they create self-enclosed, imaginary landscapes, where winds blow through whatever might be taking shape as a theme.
Tunes don’t progress in any conventional manner. They sway, until you can almost see the movies they’re scoring. Lana Del Rey floats on her own voice: a song calling up a café in Budapest in 1937 feels as if it’s coming out of a radio at least as old, but there are no sound effects. The effect is all in the phrasing, the hesitation, the commitment to the situation that’s being created. Most complete is “Religion,” with more than ten instruments credited, none of which seem to be there, all of them erased like the filler lyrics by a distant, gorgeous beckoning toward the specter painted by Arnold Böcklin as Isle of the Dead. The creaminess of the voice can hide but not negate the acrid, suicidal loathing that drives this song, “The Blackest Day,” or the title song, where you know that even if there’s a wedding, the marriage will never make it to a honeymoon. When Del Rey ends with a song that isn’t hers—covering the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”—it’s no message. This singer is enough of an artist not to care whether you understand her or not, or to claim there’s anything to understand. It’s a chance to sing in a different rhythm, to focus the song on a word, opening up “good,” letting it breathe, letting it tell the whole story. The organ close by Rick Novels, Lana Del Rey’s co-writer, is lovely.
Jon Caramanica, who holds the hip-hop and country fiefdoms in the New York Times, is the sort of arts pundit described in Paul Beatty’s novel Slumberland: a “master spy who used his cover as a pop-culture critic to prop up dictatorial movements like ‘trip-hop,’ ‘jungle,’ ‘Dogme 95,’ and ‘graffiti art’ instead of puppet third-world governments.” All music is reductively slotted into ever more finely sliced genres, as if Caramanica not only recognizes but owns them, and judged according to how it follows (for hip-hop) or breaks (for country) the rules, as discerned or invented by the writer, of its branded style. Individual performers are presented either as actual people, and their songs treated as personal messages from artist to audience, or as personas, with the music of each personified personage judged according to how effectively, given, in Carmanica’s schema, the performer’s always transparent intent, the persona is ironically or flatly constructed or deconstructed. Carmanica is the critic as cop—Vice Squad or Red Squad, depending.
“She’s been angry, and then bored of being angry, but now she’s just bored,” he wrote in a review of Honeymoon, stretching the sneer he’s tried to impose on Lana Del Rey since the release of her Born to Die. (Oh, the effrontery, using a name she wasn’t given!) He went on, alternating left-handed admiration for her elaboration of her being (“her boredom is entrancing”) with barely disguised contempt, until he reaches the point where he can compose a closing paragraph so perfectly self-referential it seems less meant to make the writer’s point than flatter him: “And so after four years in the limelight, here lounges Ms. Del Rey, immune to the gravitational pull of the discourse about her. Once a careful invention, she is now glassy-eyed and glassy-voiced, too cool to care. The result is something like a dog that, when its leash is tugged, simply lies on the ground and shuts its eyes: basking in the sun, feeding off its warmth, never giving an inch.”
A male writer calling a female singer a dog somehow got past the Times’s copy editors—or maybe, given how effectively Lana Del Rey offends people, they cheered. But the writer gave himself away with that “immune from the discourse about herself,” which is to say her real sin is not paying enough attention to the police reports. No one’s getting away with that, especially when the cop owns the discourse, too.
3) Remy Francois, “House of the Rising Sun,” 6th Avenue and Herald Square subway station (New York, October 15). A loud, abrasive, supremely confident scattershot electric guitar seemed to shuffle the tiles on the walls. A poker-faced man with a crown on his head was pushing the song’s strong melody into abstraction, but the melody would not give itself up; he set off sparks of high notes he erased with a slash. You realized the song would never wear out, not with a musician like this proving that the old folk song, the tenth cut on Bob Dylan’s first album, the Animals’ world-wide rock ’n’ roll hit, had only begun to break out the stories it could tell. A lot of people gave him money.
4) Gee Gee Kettel, “Sultans of Swing,” rue de Buci and rue Mazarine (Paris, October 11). A man who’s busked around the world since 1980 on a street corner: there was something unyielding in the curl he found in the tune, his steel-body National Resonator turning it into a modal drone—and it sounded better, more alluring, more unsettling, at a distance, in the cold air, than close up.
5) John Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (Norton). Seabrook is a fine business reporter, and his detailed, bustling portraits of the hit-making of Kelly Clarkson, K-pop idols, the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, Rihanna, Katie Perry, Lou Pearlman, Clive Davis, Dr. Luke, and such Swedish technicians as Max Martin are always fascinating. He makes a convincing case that the pop past is as irrelevant as the future, and that hits depend on absolute predictability: of what a song will do once it has presented itself, and of how anyone listening will react. All of which passes by as a kind of rollercoaster seen through a thick glass—until Seabrook begins to adopt the language of the people he’s writing about (“a listening party that included Ty Ty fucking Smith, Jay-Z’s homeboy” ), gets caught up in the hype surrounding him (Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill is an “epoch-making hit”—really, what epoch, in the soul of the land or the music business, did it make?), and an inescapable Invasion of the Body Snatchers–Brave New World-1984-They Live cloud begins to hover over every story. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY —or, rather, slavery is freedom, at least in the sense that by giving up your ideas, your desires, and your personality, you can have endless hits and enormous amounts of money. Seabrook may be drawing this picture in spite of himself.
6) Jakob Dylan and Cat Power, “You Showed Me,” from Echo in the Canyon (Pitchfork). Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Who knows about this one, featuring the likes of Beck, Fiona Apple, and a refugee from Edward Sharpe’s hideous onstage hippie commune the Magnetic Zeros taking on mid-’60s L.A. so-called canyon music—it won’t be out til next year. “You Showed Me” was an unreleased Byrds song covered in 1969 by the Turtles. Their version, inexplicably, or not really, a top ten hit, was so forgettable you couldn’t remember it while you were listening to it. It was a tinny pop song: the Byrds played it fast, as if to cover up their own embarrassment (they were going to be a serious band, not some dumb teeny-bopper hit machine, but they were short on songs for demos). Cat Power teases out the foreboding in the corny, cramped melody, until the tune begins to open up, to stretch out, and you can take pleasure in the way she treats words as a chance to almost fall asleep.
7) “Van Morrison Live on Cyprus Avenue,” Belfast, Niorthern Ireland (BBC Radio Ulster, August 31). A live broadcast as Morrison returned to boyhood haunts to mark his 70th birthday, spending two hours explaining that, yes, everything really does slow down when you turn that corner, everything sounds like everything else, and where was I? Highlights: “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby,” featuring the long-lost Proby himself, a Texas rocker who never had a hit in the U.S. but tore up the U.K. in the years before the Beatles, who sounds three hundred years old (he’s 76); “Sometimes We Cry,” for the way the lines “I’m not going to fake it / Like Johnny Ray” still stick out. I don’t know why Morrison thinks Johnny Ray was faking it, but he sounds as if he knows exactly what he means, and if you don’t, he really doesn’t have time to go into it.
8) Pere Ubu, Elitism for the People (Fire). A four-LP box containing the Cleveland “avant-garage” band’s first two albums, the formally avant-garde The Modern Dance and the indelible musical film noir Dub Housing, both from 1978, a set of earlier singles that today communicate like a news report and in 1975 or 1977 sounded like science fiction, and a Live at Max’s Kansas City 1977 set where real drama takes place. “Sentimental Journey” is stuttering, then desperate, because something isn’t right, something isn’t working—a fabulous acting out of a moment of complete panic.
9) Dilly Dally, “Desire,” from Sore (Partisan). Watching the Toronto singer and guitarist Katie Monks with her not-quite-shoulder-length chopped blonde hair and the dark-haired guitarist Liz Ball bent over her instrument in the video for this chiming and corrugated song, it’s hard not to think of Samuel Bayer’s video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit.” There’s the same visual focus on both truth-telling and craft, and the feeling that the two elements may have nothing to do with each other. The ground beneath your feel slips a little, then a little more. You stop thinking, as Monks seems to have stopped thinking. You begin to hear the music being made; Ball is only being more careful. This isn’t typical. Some of the band’s songs can feel contrived, tripping over their own smartness. But this song doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t reveal itself, and seems to have no limits.
10) Time to Choose, directed by Charles Ferguson, pre-release screening at the Ford Foundation (New York, September 22). Walking-in music for this alternatingly kill-me-now / future-is-bright documentary on what Laurent Fabius, host of the December world conference on climate change in Paris, calls ““climate destruction”” (gruesome footage of mountain-top removal, then wind farms so vast they look like they’re on another planet)—Motown. Walking-out music: Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”