Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon concentrates not on the bliss of romantic escape, but rather, more predictably, on the comforts of time away dwelling in one’s solitary melancholy. In a sense, this is an extension of last year’s Ultraviolence, where Del Rey’s (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) fetishization of her own preferred romantic—or anti-romantic—submissiveness became self-alienating. But where at least the specters of suitors pined for, or commiserated with, impressed themselves on that music, Honeymoon’s dramatically sparse arrangements suggest a gaping absence of any presence to contest Del Rey’s own.
Gone are the assertive, motorik beats that bolstered the ingratiating pop of 2012’s Born to Die, along with the noir-shaded riffs and build-release rock dynamics the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach brought to the heavier Ultraviolence. Honeymoon was written and produced entirely by Del Rey and her two closest collaborators, Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies, resulting in both her least embellished album and also her longest. It’s a full hour of expressively expressive-less music—unmitigated solipsism as an aesthetic choice.
For a while, Honeymoon’s lack of pretense translates as a banner strength. The emotionally resonant minimalism of songs like the title track, purposed as the album’s foreboding overture, and lovelorn ballads “Terrence Loves You” and “God Knows I Tried” push Del Rey’s vocals to the front, offering little else, save for the low, distant rumble of sawed strings and piano chords, to distract from Del Rey’s unique lyricism, like the “history of violence” line that creeps into “Honeymoon” and the multi-tracked “I still get trashed” on “Terrence Loves You.”
It helps that these songs find Del Rey relying less on doomed relationships to fill the void within than taking refuge from them in the detritus of her own art, and others’. In Del Rey’s world, a late-night mope session listening to an ex’s music gives way to divine intervention from a David Bowie song, and Hotel California can make a self-destructive soul “feel free.” Artificial as the concept of Lana Del Rey has always been, divorcing the persona from mortal concerns and assimilating it into the signifiers it formed around can lead to a kind of catharsis.
But this can also be a dead-end. Sometimes Del Rey can’t manage more than empty appropriation of her influences, as on the sub-Gaga posturing of “Art Deco,” the meaningless recitation of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” on interlude “Burnt Norton,” or the endless breakup dirge “The Blackest Day,” which repeatedly name-drops Billie Holiday more as a matter of branding than because Lana demonstrates any understanding of the pathos Lady Day commands. The facile nature of some of these songs would be a bit more redeemable if they weren’t also caught in an unreachable compromise between pop ambition and thematic obligation.
So little of Honeymoon, beyond early highlight and trolling feint of a lead single “High by the Beach,” differentiates itself from a prevailing, uniformly glacial pace—all lurching submerged beats and half-heartedly delivered choruses. It’s the first album Del Rey has failed to find some kind of dynamic shape for, and while that’s probably an intentional decision, it does leave its lynchpin finale, a knowing cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” strangely unconvincing. Del Rey again appropriates, this time using Miss Simone’s message as a means to address the criticisms lobbed at her over a divisive career, but ironically, Honeymoon’s wildly uneven sprawl leaves this quixotic songwriter more susceptible to those criticisms than ever before.