Modern pop’s patron saint of American fatalism has found happiness at the precise moment that her nation has discovered a propensity for hopelessness—an irony that isn’t lost on the singer-songwriter. Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey’s most ambitious album to date, is a sprawling contemplation of her aesthetic and its various dissonances. It’s overextended at almost 75 minutes, but even in its flaws is the sense that Del Rey is working to disillusion her earlier work’s fetish of a tainted Americana.
The opening track, “Love,” lays out the framework for a simultaneously broad thematic scope and intimate emotional scale. Del Rey conjures the sonic mass of a celestial body—with a cresting, 2001-worthy orchestral swell—and finds an ethereal kind of catharsis in the quotidian: “You get ready you get all dressed up/To go nowhere in particular.” “Love” is as deft a song as Lana has written, functioning both as coded self-assessment (“Look at you kids with your vintage music”) and gestures toward a constructive implication for her retro-fetishism (“You’re part of the past, but now you’re the future”). It relies on Del Rey’s typical anachronisms—castanets and wall-of-sound dynamics meeting digital distortion and chattering industrial noise—but in this context her out-of-time sound feels like a purposeful escape.
“Love” is a gorgeous, illustrative overture for an album that simultaneously grapples with the pull of the future and the past—as a conscious avoidance of the full present. In this sense, and not only this sense, Lust for Life is Del Rey’s most political album so far. It’s also her most structurally coherent: The first half hedges its contemporary pop signifiers (trap percussion, a duet with the Weeknd) with sonic elements that draw on various retro influences (the doo-wop backing of “Lust for Life,” the tremolo guitar effects and lo-fi drum rolls of “Cherry”) until arriving at three songs, two featuring A$AP Rocky, that push Del Rey as close to a contemporary sound as she’s gotten in years.
Then comes Lust for Life’s hipster-baiting centerpiece, “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind,” which again finds an avenue back in time. Del Rey’s fairly corny autobiographical account of experiencing a Father John Misty set with her best friend (who happens to be his wife) eventually opens up into a slightly less corny musing on spiritual and cultural affinities shared between the worlds of concertgoers in 1969 and 2017. More importantly, the song acts as a kind of portal, transitioning us from a more modern-leaning pop sound to the folky material that dominates Lust for Life’s latter half.
The songs on side two still have beats, synths, and gun-shot effects, but these flourishes are applied sparingly to compositions built around acoustic guitar and piano—which was, according to Del Rey, the direction the whole album was heading during its initial recording. Crucially, this more explicitly retro sequence of songs brings Lust for Life’s most urgent sociopolitical messages, a gesture to the spirit of the protest generation it’s channeling. In particular, a finger-picked, bass-heavy anthem-to-be titled—deep breath now—“God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women in It” repurposes the Americana that Del Rey once used for self-mythologizing as a tool for exerting universal feminine agency: “Stand proud and strong like lady liberty shining,” she sings to women of a nation, in the era of President Pussy-Grab, in need of solidarity.
It isn’t always clear how sincere we’re meant to take Del Rey’s polemical concerns, especially over the wispy folktronica of “When the World Was at War We Just Kept Dancing” (“Is this the end of America?” she asks dryly, followed quickly by a resounding “No, it’s only the beginning!”). Or, for that matter, whether or not the Stevie Nicks-featuring “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” is actually some kind of bid for power-ballad satire or if it’s just profoundly vapid. There’s also a moment on the otherwise incandescent “Tomorrow Never Came” when Del Rey shouts out duet partner Sean Ono Lennon that sounds an awful lot like the kind of self-satisfied line a Father John Misty fan would write—which is no compliment. But most, if not all, of these dalliances seem to get absorbed into the fabric of an album that usually applies its referentiality with grace and intelligence.
Lust for Life’s canny aesthetic and thematic accomplishments are further complemented by what’s Del Rey’s most emotionally resonant song cycle of her young career. In something of a seismic shift for the usually downcast artist, the constant of the songwriting here is a buoying faith in the power of love, and all the many forms it can take: romantic (“Love”), carnal (“Cherry”), platonic (“Coachella”), effusively adulatory (“Groupie Love”), fetishistic (“White Mustang”), and, yes, self-loving (“In My Feelings”).
This positivity, too, feels political: Del Rey responds to our darkest cultural moment with a fighting optimism and newfound awareness of sociopolitical crisis. “Out of the black and into the blue,” she sings on the album closer “Get Free,” adding “I’m doing it for all of us,” which turns a song—and album—that’s very much about an expression of personal emotional recovery from addiction and various abuses into an aspirational example for anyone to follow.