Without pushing this analogy past the breaking point, it’s not surprising that Lana Del Rey and Quentin Tarantino are often mentioned in the same sentence, because their art is similar in so many ways. Both are that rare phenomenon: the superstar cult figure whose highly individual art exists outside the mainstream but has an audience big enough — and more importantly, dedicated enough — to move culture. Both create work that is original but is also a cleverly assembled collection of influences and references — in Del Rey’s case, that’s everything from girl groups and Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen to Portishead and Allen Ginsberg. Both load their work with deliberate pop-culture references, in terms of lyrics or dialog as well as their actual contributors; it makes thematic sense for Del Rey to cover a Sublime song or “Blue Velvet” in the same way it made sense for Jennifer Jason Leigh to star in one of Tarantino’s films.
Maybe most of all, their work demands to be taken on its own terms: In the same way that one patiently settles in for a Tarantino film, knowing that it’s going to be long and move at its own pace — with loads of snappy dialog and period detail to keep the journey interesting — Del Rey’s songs waft in languidly and move slowly, but are spiked with clever rhymes and references and jarringly explicit lyrics about sex and violence.
Interestingly, both have landed in the Laurel Canyon of the late 1960s and early 1970s with their latest work, Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Del Rey’s fifth and latest full-length, “Norman F—ing Rockwell.” In her case, the theme is not only present in the lyrics but also in her Southern California soft-rock influences, with acoustic guitar, piano, vintage synths, easy grooves and flashes of Carole King, Jackson Browne and even late-period Beach Boys (who get a name check in “The Greatest”) sprinkled amid her standard breathy vocals, big strings, Morricone guitar and vaguely trap beats.
Complicating the narrative is the fact that “Rockwell” is an Antonoff Affair — i.e. it’s largely co-written and co-produced by serial collaborator Jack Antonoff, who’s recently worked with Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent and Pink — and it arrives precisely seven days after one of the most heavily scrutinized albums of all time: Swift’s “Lover,” which he also largely co-wrote and co-produced. Although Antonoff’s hand is clearly detectable here, the albums have very little else in common: Del Rey and Swift have such hurricane-force personas that even working with the same collaborator makes their sounds unmistakable.
Despite the heavy input from such a proven hitmaker, “Rockwell” still demands a lot of the listener: Its 14 songs sprawl across 67 minutes; the tempos are languid; the third song, the epic “Venice Bitch,” is nearly 10 minutes long; and it concludes with three slow piano ballads that, if the album is taken as a whole, drag down its overall score (although in this age of the imploded-album format, one could charitably view them as bonus tracks on a tighter 11-track disc).
But no matter who she’s collaborating with — Andrew Watt and longtime collaborator Rick Nowels also have a hand in “Rockwell” — Del Rey always dominates, and like all of her work in this persona, this album is another variation on her theme. She continues to push her troubled, almost comically extreme femme fatale persona even further into outrage (the album’s first lyric is: “Goddamn, man-child/ You f—ed me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you’”) while continuing familiar themes (“Lying on your chest in my party dress/ I’m a f—ing mess”) and even throwing in some hip-hop-influenced wordplay (“Ice cream, ice queen/ I dream in jeans and leather/ Life’s dream, I’m sweet for you”). The early ‘70s references pop up multiple times in the lyrics, with nods to Crosby Stills & Nash, “Crimson and Clover,” Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” and even the line, “We play the Eagles down in Malibu and I want it.”
And although her recent song “Looking for America,” a reaction to the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, curiously is not included (although her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” is), there’s no shortage of topicality. She’s said the album’s title is a reflection of the twisted state the country is in — the vulgarity in the title defacing the American traditions embodied by Rockwell paintings — and she sings in “The Greatest,” “L.A. is in flames‚ it’s getting hot/ Kanye West is blond and gone/ ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song.”
While “Norman F—ing Rockwell” may not win over too many of the unconverted, also like a Tarantino film, it finds Del Rey placing new sounds, ideas and scenery into her fairly monochromatic framework, while still remaining completely on-message.