Why is this woman smiling? You might think that upon first gazing at the cover of Lana Del Rey’s new album, “Lust for Life,” where the thousand-yard stare that previously beckoned listeners to join in jadedness has been replaced by an engaging and possibly unnerving grin. The idea of a Lana Del Rey who’s… warm? It’s a prospect that could give some give fans the shivers.
Not to worry, entirely: There’s still plenty of Del Rey’s signature frost to be found on “Lust for Life,” which isn’t about to transpire over a supersized 16 songs and 72 minutes without some trademark indulgence in the big chill. But that peaceful smile and the flower-child look that goes with it are meant to signify that this is the album in which Del Rey becomes woke. Which is, of course, an unexpected wrinkle for the woman who, more than just about anyone in pop history, rose to fame giving somnambulism a good name.
The idea of a Del Rey who’s suddenly committed to personal growth will inevitably lead to some “Little Lana, happy at last” chortling. But she wears the more hopeful songs that bookend “Lust for Life” surprisingly well, considering that she and producer/co-writer Rick Nowels haven’t made too many adjustments to a musical thermostat that earlier lent itself to icier material about drugs and death wishes.
Give her credit for creating the “purposeful pop” album Katy Perry thought she was making, then gave up on after one song, “Chained to the Rhythm.” In that single, Perry chided Americans for dancing through what she saw as the political apocalypse, a scolding that didn’t really seem to fit with the blithe escapism of the rest of her album. Del Rey has a song title on her album that seems to promise the same theme: “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” Except here, after asking “Is it the end of America?,” the diva in question is actually endorsing our way of hoofing through the present hysteria, suggesting that if we got through a world war or two by ballroom dancing, then cutting a rug can get us through this. It’s not actually a dance track — Del Rey is still bereft of those (though remixers have long found her material ripe for reinterpretation) — but with her voice gradually drifting to the uppermost end of her register, it is startlingly beautiful.
Go further down the track list, and you keep coming across other titles you imagine might be meant to be sarcastic, but aren’t. “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” her ballad-y duet with Stevie Nicks, really is about beautiful people with beautiful problems. (Del Rey agrees with Ray Stevens that everything is beautiful, in its own way.) She’s also quite sincere in invoking that B-word in “God Bless America — And All the Beautiful Women In It,” an ode to feminism in the Trump era that sounds like it might have been inspired by the January women’s march. And woe unto you if you imagine that “Coachella — Woodstock in My Mind” intends to make any unfavorable comparisons between the modern festival and the historic one. (Okay, maybe making Coachella sound like HQ for the modern hippie vibe isn’t the best idea she ever had.)
All this positivity is balanced with a healthy, or unhealthy, dose of depressive Del Rey — the old Lana who’s chronically prone to sleeping with ne’er-do-wells and maybe dreaming of sleeping with the fishes, too. The lure of bad boys keeps Del Rey in her tranquilized state in the entrancingly dysfunctional stretch of the album that runs from “Cherry” and “White Mustang” through “In My Feelings.” A$AP Rocky’s conflictedly macho rap is a particularly smart turn on “Summer Bummer,” an irresistible mixture of dread and sensuality (although there are diminishing returns when Rocky shows up again on the very next number, “Groupie Love”).
Not everyone makes as fitting an addition as A$AP. Producer Nowels may have had the right idea when he brought his longtime collaborator Nicks onto “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” but the Fleetwood Mac singer is saddled with the most wan melody on the album. Del Rey’s collaboration with Sean Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Came,” is the one outright clunker. Del Rey literally invokes his dad, in a lyrical shout-out to John and Yoko, but the song isn’t meant to recall the dreamy John Lennon of “Tomorrow Never Knows” but rather represents an attempt to come up with something more in the maudlin vein of “Beautiful Boy.” Completely chipper adorableness is a stretch Del Rey doesn’t yet have in her, though her guileless fandom almost renders it forgivable.
Even with a misstep or two, “Lust for Life” is sequenced effectively to tell a story about wallowing and awakening, without getting too heavy-handed. And while no one would accuse the album of making any bold political statements, there’s a quiet deftness to the way it mixes the twin turmoils of the outside and inward worlds into something that seems of a piece. “I started out thinking that the whole record was gonna have sort of a ‘50s/’60s feeling with some kind of Shangri-Las influences,” she recently told a BBC DJ, “but as the climate kept on getting more heated politically, I found lyrically everything was just directed toward that.” You’re a stronger man than I if you can resist an album that does, in fact, literally quote “My Boyfriend’s Back” amid big helpings of self-help and societal unease.
In the closing “Get Free,” Del Rey wraps things up with what almost sounds like an ode to “Pet Sounds” — appropriate for an album that begins with the singer repeating the borrowed line “Don’t worry, baby.” Even in a moment of pop sublimity like this, she never forgets there’s actually a lot to worry about. “You, as we found out, were not in your right mind,” she sings at one point, and you might wonder, does she mean a toxic ex-lover, or someone in the news? For the purposes of the song, it hardly matters. Boys and Donald Trump: they can both be such bothers.
Lana Del Rey
“Lust for Life”
Producers: Del Rey, Rick Nowels, Kieron Menzies, Dean Reid. Additional producers: Emile Haynie, Benny Blanco, Tim Larcombe, Boi 1da, Jahaan Sweet, Hector Delgado, Metro Boomin, Sean Ono Lennon.