Album Review: Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell

I was having an exchange the other day with a friend1, encouraging her to try picking back up the forms of artistic expression she often all too quickly sets down—mainly drawing and writing.

Prior to this, she had asked if I was writing anything; I told her that I was between reviews at the moment, and was involved in editing the interviews for upcoming podcasts that I had recorded—but that I needed to put something together about the new Lana Del Rey album.

“Where are you even going to start with Lana?” she asked me.

“That’s a good question. I have no idea—it’s intimidating.”

“There is a lot to unpack with her, I think.”

My friend is right; there is a lot to unpack with both Lana Del Rey, as the caricature or persona developed by Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Grant, as well as her ambitious, surprising, devastating, and masterful fifth full-length album, Norman Fucking Rockwell.


A number of weeks ago, seemingly unprompted, my boss2 asked me if ever listened to Lana Del Rey.

I told her I never had—however, a friend of mine from college3 had, shortly before this exchange in the conference room at work, told me Norman Fucking Rockwell was good, and that I should give it a listen. I had a copy downloaded, sitting on the desktop of my computer, but at that point, I hadn’t listened to it yet.

My boss, coincidentally, had a similar exchange with a college friend of hers, who said, more or less, told her the very same thing.

It wasn’t until maybe another week or two passed before I thought to put Norman Fucking Rockwell onto my mp3 player, and listen to it in the car on a somewhat lengthy drive.

By the time I reached my destination, making it through the first four tracks—slightly into the fifth, a surprisingly accessible cover of a Sublime song, of all things (spoiler, it’s the weakest song on the album, though)—I frantically texted my boss to ask her if she wanted a copy of the album, telling her I was five songs in, and the only other way I could think to describe what I had just heard was by telling her “this shit is so wild.”


I’m uncertain, exactly, at this point, eight years after Grant rose to seemingly overnight international stardom based off the single “Video Games,” why I never gave her output as Lana Del Rey a chance until now. Perhaps I was turned off by the endless amount of hype surrounding her major label debut, released at the beginning of 2012, Born to Die; perhaps I didn’t understand the mystique and mythology she had already worked for years building for herself as a performer, culminating with ‘Lana Del Rey’ as a figure, after a number of years of false starts and missed opportunities.

Perhaps Grant’s earliest material as Lana Del Rey, like “Video Games,” just didn’t resonate me at the time of its release; perhaps in 2012, I still couldn’t think for myself completely and I took Pitchfork’s tepid response to Born to Die too seriously.

Perhaps the idea of Grant as a melancholic torch singer, owing a lot to the sound and style of the 1950s and 60s, was not something I found accessible, or even something that I needed to take note of, until now.

Or, perhaps, it was not something that I realized I needed, or would see dark parts of myself in, until now.


God damn, man-child
You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’

There were a number of things I was completely unprepared for when it came to Norman Fucking Rockwell, an absolutely sprawling, gorgeous exploration of love and sadness—an album steeped in American iconography, diverse in its understanding of contemporary popular music, and jaw droppingly astounding its usage of vivid, evocative songwriting.

I was completely unprepared for Grant’s use of humor—a dry, seemingly endless deadpan that she uses to deliver brutally self-deprecating lyrics that are, at times, laugh out loud funny, despite how stark they may be deep down.

Listening to an album in the car is maybe not the best environment to hear something for the first time, but it does provide the opportunity to, quite literally, immerse yourself in it—if you’re alone and can turn the volume knob up as high as it would go. Grant’s use of humor, though, came as such a shock during my initial listen that there were moments where it was difficult to keep the car on the road.

The album’s titular track, also its opening piece, more or less serves as a thesis statement for how Norman Fucking Rockwell as an album, and as an experience, will unfold. Musically, “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is swooning, grand, and at times, even jaunty in its arrangement, thanks to the orchestral accompaniment and borderline rollicking piano—courtesy of Grant’s collaborator and co-writer for this project, go-to pop impresario Jack Antonoff. While Antonoff is known for his relatively slick, dense ‘pop’ arranging, he’s able to thankfully scale all of that back, creating an environment that owes a lot to the ‘California’ sound of the 1960s and 1970s, folk music, Americana, and emotional balladry, among other things.

But what sells the song—and a bulk of the album, is Grant’s ability to pen a song with a wickedly dry, self-effacing sense of humor.

The opening line of “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is, “God damn, man-child—you fucked me so good I almost said ‘I love you.’” It’s an absolutely audacious, brazen way to open a song, let alone the entire album—and it’s that brazen, explicit use of language and wit that Grant carries from song to song. She refers to herself as a ‘Venice Bitch’—once in the album’s second track, the country and western tinged “Mariner Apartment Complex,” and again on the kaleidoscopic, dizzying, and aptly titled nine-minute opus “Venice Bitch.”

 If I wasn’t so fucked up, I think I’d fuck you all the time,” she coos in what is maybe one of the wildest songs on the album, “Fuck It, I Love You.”

Lying on your chest, in my party dress, I’m a fucking mess,” she confesses later, in the album’s halfway point, “Love Song,” which is possibly the best song, or at least most emotionally stirring, on the album.


The thing about a song like “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is, once you get beyond the initial surprise, and laughter, at the earnestness with which Grant sings the song’s lyrics, is the bleak, desperate nature and intent of those lyrics sinks in.

It begins, first, when I realize the opening line to the song’s second verse is, “God damn, man-child—you act like a kid even though you stand six foot two4,” and I had a moment where I felt mildly attacked—like the lyric was coming from every woman I have ever known.

I mentioned this to my boss, and she just laughed at me; I said something about it to my friend, and she didn’t quite understand why I was taking the lyric so seriously.

 You’re poetry’s bad and you blame the news—but I can’t change that, and I can’t change your mood,” Grant sings at the end of the song’s first verse, before sliding into the song’s refrain—“You’re just a man, it’s just what you do: your head in your hands as you color me blue.”

It seemed the more I listened to the song, the more I saw reflections of myself, and my own shortcomings—being prone to melancholy, and the way I have treated people throughout my life—in the character Grant was describing.

But it was only recently, shortly before I sat down to look at the album critically, that I realized the hardest line to hear was—“Why wait for the best when I can have you?”


Once, and I don’t remember when I read this, but I saw a very generalized description of everyone who is on Twitter as being both sad and horny—this is accurate, and if I were to describe Grant’s persona as Lana Del Rey as this, or to describe the content of Norman Fucking Rockwell this way, it’d be selling it dramatically short, or doing it a disservice, but that is the short answer on the zeitgeist that Grant represents.

The songs on Norman Fucking Rockwell are, as a whole, exponentially less lusty, say, in comparison to her previous work, like the fittingly titled Lust for Life—where on the titular track, she and Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a The Weeknd) take turns repeating the mantra “Take off all your clothes,” but throughout her body of work, and especially here, and now, there is an exploration of the space between love, desperation, and sadness—where all of those feelings converge, and what happens when they do.

That desperation begins to slide in a little on “Venice Bitch, during the song’s refrain, in the way Grant oozes a kind of dangerous sexuality with the delivery of “Oh god I miss you on my lips—it’s me, your little Venice Bitch,” but things become much more desolate and urgent by the time NFR reaches its fourth track, “Fuck It, I Love You,” which is one of the slickest sounding productions of the record.

To his credit, Antonoff remains relatively restrained in the way he collaborates with Grant throughout the record—he’s credited as co-writer on 10 of the album’s 14 tracks, and handles a majority of the production and arranging as well. It’s not nearly as ‘big’ sounding of a record as it could be given the kind of sounds he’s gotten out of Taylor Swift, or Annie Clark, or even out of Tom Krell’s How to Dress Well, on the single “Lost You/Lost Youth.” He knows how to write a pop song—but the trick here is writing a pop song that never gets out of hand, or buckles under the weight of, not so much its own ambition, because Norman Fucking Rockwell is wildly ambitious; no, it’s the weight of its own sonic complexities and layers.

“Fuck It, I Love You” is intentionally muddied and murky in its production—with a slow simmering, glitchy, slithering rhythm that culminates in a hypnotic ‘pre-chorus’ before Grant delivers the titular line, over and over again, in a desperate sounding way where it, truthfully, barely sounds like she’s saying the word ‘love.’ Like she maybe can’t bring herself to say it—not yet anyway. The imagery on “Fuck It, I Love You” is surprisingly dark at times, and the song hits its stride Grant unrelentingly delivers the lines—“I moved to California but it’s just a state of mind/it turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, that’s not a lie. I wish that you would hold me, or just say that you were mine. It’s killing me—slowly.”

There’s also this chilling way she sings the next lines that lead directly into the refrain: “Dream a little dream of me—make me into something sweet. Turn the radio on, dancing to a pop song.” And it’s that last part, about dancing to the pop song, which is sung with an effect on it, and with natural dissonance in Grant’s voice, that makes it a strangely eerie moment in a song that straddles the line between fun and infectious, and unnerving.


Norman Fucking Rockwell’s second half opens with “Cinnamon Girl,” a track that Antonoff finding an unexpected place between the glitchy, synthy, slow motion bombast that a) he is capable of producing, and b) was indicative of Grant’s last outing as Lana Del Rey—Lust for Life, and the tender, piano balladry that takes up a majority of this album, or at the very least, finds its way into a number of the songs included here.

It’s an impressive song in the sense that it is both relatively infectious, though in an indirect way, and it blends the pop sensibilities of both Grant and Antonoff with the very, very stark lyrics about addiction, or at least dependence on drugs—perhaps prescription, perhaps not—and the instability they create within a relationship. “All the pills you take—violet, blue, green, red—to keep me at arm’s length, don’t work. You try to push me out, but I just find my way back in.” Then, later, there is even more heartbreaking imagery in the refrain: “There’s things I want to say to you, but I’ll just let you live—like if you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first whoever did.”

I hesitate to say that the pacing of Norman Fucking Rockwell begins to slow slightly after the halfway mark, because that isn’t exactly the case, especially since Grant is audacious enough to place a nine-minute psychedelic folk song as the third track on the album. The pacing, and structure, of this record is very deliberate—more than likely labored over, but the overall feeling of the record begins to take a different shape and tone. “How to Disappear” sways sadly and slowly, a tense, pensive ballad that rests on the moment when the music drops out slightly and Grant, in a dejected, lower register, utters, “This is how to disappear.”

Grant continues the dark, tumultuous narrative that is discussed in “Cinnamon Girl,” or at least a very similarly themed narrative, on the brooding “California.” The state itself, as well as what it means in both American iconography and to Grant herself is idealized throughout the record, but here it’s used as a sharp juxtaposition against the serious lyrics—“You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are, when you’re lying in my arms,” she sings in the song’s opening line; then, leading up to the refrain, shows hesitation in how to proceed with handling the situation she finds herself in—“I shouldn’t have done it but I read it in your letter/You said to a friend that you were wish you were doing better. I wanted to reach out, but I never said a thing.”

One of the few songs that Antonoff is not credited as co-writer on, Grant collaborates with Zack Dawes of the band Mini Mansions, to create one of the most stirring moments on the record—honest in its use of contemporary language (“If you come back to America, just hit me up,” she says, earnestly), devastating in the portrayal of how difficult love and relationships can be, and thanks to the arranging and instrumentation, incredibly fucking dramatic in its execution.


Across the entirety of Norman Fucking Rockwell, Grant and Antonoff are able to strike a balance between the more skeletally, or sparsely arranged pieces, and songs with a little more instrumentation and a little more diversity in the direction they take. It’s impressive, being able to keep that balancing act up for 14 tracks, on a record that runs well over an hour—and what is maybe even more impressive is that it is almost always compelling. Once you get into the album, never are you truly concerned with how much of an ask some of it can be (a nine-minute song is kind of asking a lot, but, like, it doesn’t feel like nine minutes have passed; also, the Sublime cover is a big ask) in a time when the idea of an album as a whole is a borderline thing of the past.

The record concludes with two relatively sparse, somber, piano driven pieces—“Happiness is A Butterfly,” and the cumbersomely titled, though incredibly poignant, “Hope is A Dangerous Thing for A Woman Like Me to Have—But I Have It.”

Another one of the more surprising elements, or facets to Norman Fucking Rockwell, is how it works as both a self-contained collection of 14 songs, complete with both overlapping and recurring ideas, as well as thematic call-backs and references to previous Lana Del Rey songs; but it’s also the kind of album that allows itself to be picked apart, both for the singles it was mined for a year in advance (“Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch” were issued in September 2018) as well as for the songs that a listener would subjectively deem ‘the best.’

And of those, there are many.

The idea of a terribly volatile relationship runs throughout a bulk of these songs, and that narrative culminates, in a sense, in “Happiness is A Butterfly.” “Do you want me, or do you not?” the song begins. “I heard one thing, now I’m hearing another.” Set against minimal instrumentation, and co-written between Grant, Antonoff, and Grant’s regular collaborator Rick Nowels, the song is amongst the most urgent in its pleading for a resolution to this tumultuous relationship—but Grant provides no easy answers: neither for this tragic narrative, nor as a whole, with the statements the album makes.

“Happiness is A Butterfly” contains one of the album’s starkest, bleakest lines: “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl who’s already hurt? I’m already hurt.” Then, everything more or less falls apart in the song’s refrain: “I said, ‘Don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi.’ Sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat—I just wanna dance with you.”

I just wanna hold you tight, down the avenue—I just wanna dance with you.”

In a sense, “Hope is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have” is an epilogue, or a reflection on both the album itself, as well as Grant’s persona as Lana Del Rey, and it contains one of the album’s most profound reflections—one of so very many times while listening to Norman Fucking Rockwell on repeat the last few weeks that I felt very seen: “Don’t ask if I’m happy—you know that I’m not. But at best, I can say I’m not sad.”

On an incredibly personal record, a fascinating thing for an artist who, more or less, lives within a persona she created, “Hope” is the most personal song of the set—a fitting way to conclude the record, as Grant reflects on her career up to this point: “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown—24/7 Sylvia Plath,” she sings, creating a terribly jarring contrast of imagery, then changing it later in the song to “tearing up town in my fucking white gown—like a goddamn near sociopath.”

Set against Antonoff’s very dramatic piano accompaniment, Grant almost never comes up for air as she dissects herself bluntly, effortlessly rattling of quote worthy lines: “Shaking my ass is the only thing that’s got this black narcissist5 off my back,” and “A modern day woman with a weak constitution, ‘cause I’ve got monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off.”

But, even with all of this uncertainty and self-effacing reflection, there is still a small glimmer at the end of the record—hope is a dangerous thing for her to have, but she has it.


Then, there is the case of “Love Song”; the four-minute piece that splits the record in half, and without a doubt, is Norman Fucking Rockwell’s finest moment—a borderline flawless culmination of evocative imagery that creates a contrast between the erotic, the tender, and the haunting.

As alluded to a number of times already, there are a lot of surprising things about Norman Fucking Rockwell, but perhaps the most surprising thing of all isn’t on the album itself—perhaps the most surprising thing of all is how attached to this album I have become, and how much of myself I see reflected off of it at times, because considering that, up until roughly a month ago, I had never paid any serious attention to Lana Del Rey’s output—perhaps the most surprising thing is how, at this point, we’re 3,300 words into a review of an album, and I am still nowhere near a conclusion.

At first glance, and maybe even at second glance, “Love Song” appears to be a song about having sex in a car. But, as with so many other moments on Norman Fucking Rockwell, it’s about more than that. And never would I think that a song that is, primarily, about sex in a car, would wind up being one of my favorite, and one of the most impressive songs on the record—but here we are.

The tenderness and honesty comes in the song’s refrain—or at least part of it. “Oh, be my once in a lifetime,” Grant coos. “Lying’ on your chest, in my party dress, I’m a fucking mess but I….” and she never finishes that thought before moving into the next line, and every time I hear it, I wonder where that could have gone.

It’s in the song’s second verse, as well, where the actual affection and connection of the narrative are cemented—even though they are contrasted with the image of her disrobing in the backseat of a car. “I believe that you see me for who I am,” Grant sings softly, before following it up with “So spill my clothes on the floor of your new car,” then, asking a question that may be just too difficult to answer in a pop song—“Is it safe to just be who we are?”

And that’s why this song works—it swoons, but in a reserved, calculated way; it’s gorgeous in its arrangement, and it finds Grant dipping back into the slow burning balladry she was, and perhaps still is, best known for, and when the elements of this song converge, it creates a moment that lingers, and even haunts, long after the record has continued to move forward. Even though there’s something intrinsically erotic covering the whole song, there are moments where it’s also incredibly comforting—the idea of finding someone who you can collapse into a heap on top of; the idea of finding someone you are comfortable enough to be yourself around, even in a confined moment of intimacy.


Grant refers to herself in “Hope is A Dangerous Thing” as a ‘modern day woman with a weak constitution.’ She, and Lana Del Rey, as an extension of herself, are still human, and by no means perfect, or the kind people (or personas) that should be idealized.

And even with very brash, borderline empowering lyrics like “fresh out of fucks forever,” from the sprawling “Venice Bitch,” or “They mistook my kindness for weakness. I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus—can’t a girl just do the best she can?” from the swirling, country tinged “Mariners Apartment Complex,” Grant is not a feminist icon6—these are still songs that, at the end of the day, are about men, her need for love, and the need to be loved back.

Norman Fucking Rockwell would never pass the Bechdel Test7, if there were a way to apply that to pop music. Truthfully, very little pop music would pass the Bechdel Test—but at times, it’s best not to look at a piece of art that critically, but instead, accept it for what it is, flaws and all.

For someone who has built their career out of an eerie mystique, with heavy nods to a sound from long ago, all while steeped in similarly dated imagery, Norman Fucking Rockwell is a reflection of what it means to be human in these very tumultuous, uncertain times. We all want to love, we all want to be loved in return—and love can be very complicated and volatile at times. It can be a source of unbelievable pain, but it also is the thing that gives us quiet moments of comfort and a longing fulfilled.

You, like me, may have never thought you would see portions of yourself in a Lana Del Rey album—but Grant, the tremendous songwriter she has matured into—holds up a funhouse mirror of sorts, that illuminates the darkness and sadness we try to outrun as best we can, but also provides that glimmer of such a dangerous thing—hope.

1- I know she always reads the footnotes, and is disappointed when there aren’t that many. Shout out to Andrea, who is said friend, and who has been mentioned before in previous pieces, but I am uncertain, at this time, how she really feels about becoming a ‘character’ more or less, in things I have written—though I am also uncertain about how a number of other people (e.g. my wife) really feel about that too.

2- In a discussion with Page, my boss, about this review, when it was less than 1,000 words long, I told her she was mentioned in it. She thought that was great, and exclaimed—“I like the album! That’s my take on it!”

3- This is a point of clarification that was entirely too cumbersome to try to shoehorn into the piece, but my ‘friend from college’ is Kate, who I was, at one time, a number of years ago (15+) very good friends with. There was a brief, ill-fated attempt at a relationship; that didn’t work, and it more or less ruined what was a perfectly good friendship. I recently reached out and apologized for being a ‘god damn man-child’ if you will, and we have since been corresponding back and forth. Early in our ongoing conversation, she said in comparison to the other Lana Del Rey albums, Norman Fucking Rockwell was more appealing to her musically, and it had provided her with the expression, ‘Fresh out of fucks forever.”

4- I am 6’2” for what it’s worth.

5- I guess this expression caused some minor concern online that it was a racial jab at the polarizing rap artist Azealia Banks, with whom she allegedly had some kind of online feud with in 2018 according to Genius’ annotation of this song. Grant contends it was not, and is deeply personal, as is the rest of the song.

6- I wasn’t sure where or how to work this in but Grant, or Lana Del Rey, is not, like, mildly problematic, but she was recently photographed with this hunky police officer she is apparently dating and when pressed for a quote on it, she said he was a ‘good cop’ and ‘saw both sides of things.’ Who she dates has little to do with feminism, and in an effort to separate the art from the artist, I’m trying not to pay attention to who she is photographed having lunch with in a park, but I felt like her response was maybe….not so much tone deaf, but a little vapid sounding.

7- The Bechdel Test is a use of measurement for the representation of women in fiction—commonly used with movies now. It requires that a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.