DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Lana Del Rey is a singer and songwriter who, over the last decade, has released a string of recordings that have expanded our idea of what Los Angeles pop music sounds like. She's just released her first album in over two years. It's called "Norman Rockwell!" with an exuberant obscenity inserted between those two names. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the music on this album is some of the strongest of the year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** IT I LOVE YOU")
LANA DEL REY: (Singing) I like to see everything in neon, drink lime green, stay up till dawn. Maybe the way that I'm living is killing me. I like to light up the stage with a song, do [expletive] to keep me turned on. But one day, I woke up like, maybe I'll do it differently, so I moved to California, but it's just a state of mind.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Lana Del Rey is guided by what the art critic Peter Plagens has called the sunshine muse, that bright clarity of California light that also illuminates darker impulses and bleak thoughts. The singer and songwriter's new album is a series of earthquakes and aftershocks rendered with supreme confidence and a steely assurance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE IS A DANGEROUS THING FOR A WOMAN LIKE ME TO HAVE - BUT I HAVE IT")
DEL REY: (Singing) I was reading Slim Aarons, and I got to thinking that I thought maybe I'd get less stressed if I was tested less like all of these debutantes, smiling for miles in pink dresses and high heels on white yachts, but I'm not. Baby, I'm not. No, I'm not that. I'm not. I've been tearing around in my [expletive] nightgown 24/7, Sylvia Plath writing in blood on the walls 'cause the ink in my pen don't work in my notepad.
TUCKER: Del Rey constantly contrasts her tone of voice with the words she chooses. She creates drama by speaking bluntly through a hypnotic croon. She uses the F word a lot. Much harsher than her vocabulary, however, are her assessments of the men around her, many of them self-absorbed boobs who misunderstand or underestimate her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARINERS APARTMENT COMPLEX")
DEL REY: (Singing) You took my sadness out of context at the Mariners Apartment Complex. I ain't no candle in the wind. I'm the board, the lightning, the thunder, kind of girl who's going to make you wonder who you are and who you've been. And who I've been is with you on these beaches, your Venice bitch, your die-hard, your weakness. Maybe I could save you from your sins. So kiss the sky and whisper to Jesus. My, my, my, you found this. You need this. Take a deep breath, baby. Let me in.
TUCKER: That's "Mariners Apartment Complex." "Norman F****** Rockwell" is an album of 14 songs spread over more than an hour. Songs regularly exceed four or five minutes. One goes on for more than nine, and Del Rey needs every second of them. She needs to set scenes, to make small jokes and to frame her observations about the various ways we sabotage ourselves and other people.
The album was produced by Jack Antonoff, who, in recent years, has worked with women including Taylor Swift, P!nk and St. Vincent. With Del Rey, Antonoff seems to think it best to step back and set off her vocals with piano and acoustic guitar. A few times, the two of them attempt something more grand, and the gamble pays off in the gleaming beauty of a song called "The Greatest."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GREATEST")
DEL REY: (Singing) I miss Long Beach, and I miss you, baby. I miss dancing with you the most of all. I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go, Dennis' last stop before Kokomo. Those nights were on fire. We couldn't get higher. We didn't know that we had it all, but nobody warns you before the fall.
TUCKER: Lana Del Rey is very consciously a California artist, dotting these songs with references to appropriate LA musicians and visual artists. You get the feeling her sensibility has been shaped by riding in the car, listening to the brightness of the Beach Boys during the day and then holing up in bed at night, reading, perhaps, about the doomed families in Ross Macdonald's Santa Barbara detective stories.
There are songs in which Del Rey wants you to envision her unable to sleep, climbing into her truck to zoom down through Laurel Canyon, making a right on Sunset Boulevard, heading off to Santa Monica and Venice Beach, feeling a chill of melancholy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEXT BEST AMERICAN RECORD")
DEL REY: (Singing) My baby used to dance underneath my architecture to the "Houses Of The Holy," smoking on them cigarettes. My baby used to dance underneath my architecture. He was cool as heck. He was cool as heck, and we were so obsessed with writing the next best American record.
TUCKER: One of the ultimate LA writers, Eve Babitz, made this observation in her 1974 book "Slow Days, Fast Company." Quote, "you can't write a story about LA that doesn't turn around in the middle or get lost." Indeed, many of Lana Del Rey's songs on this album take the same hairpin turns that Brad Pitt does driving down the canyon in Quentin Tarantino's recent "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood." The difference is, with Lana Del Rey at the wheel, you're never afraid you'll get lost or crack up.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed the new album by Lana Del Rey. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews two new DVDs - one about a forgotten female silent film director and the other about a musical satirist from the 1960s. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.