Lana Del Rey’s constructed a musical career in her first four albums with smoky vocals, toxic nostalgia, fantastical romance, and crushing sadness; her frequently ethereal-sounding compositions are contrasted with unexpectedly coarse language, the dreamlike atmosphere of the instrumentals somehow perfectly accented by trip-hop beats and flawlessly backing the tragedy of the lyrics.
If you’re still here at Lust For Life, her recently released fifth studio album, you’re probably not deterred by the singer-songwriter’s persistence in this style. Admittedly, no matter your predilection for musical variety, Del Rey cuts a unique position in pop music; perhaps she’s influenced songs here and there (“Wildest Dreams” comes to mind as a song with noticeable “Lana Del Rey” qualities), but nobody else is willing to completely adopt a similarly surreal character and musical atmosphere. Love her or hate her, Del Rey has the market cornered as perhaps the only artist who could pull off the ensemble as she does.
With that said, Lust For Life actually sees the boldest shift the artist has made thus far. She surely could have pulled off another album of solely catastrophic romances and bleak sadness with a nostalgic sheen, but she takes little steps to make the album something slightly different.
One of the first things you’d notice, glancing at the 16 tracks that make up the album, is that it’s her first album to feature guest artists, and it does so generously. The Weeknd accompanies her in a crooning duet on the title track, their alternating lines and harmonies perfectly portraying the movielike romance of the song over cascading piano riffs. A$AP Rocky’s rapping feels entirely at home among the hip-hop beats on “Groupie Love” and the melancholic and haunting “Summer Bummer,” with Playboi Carti also joining on the latter among operatic backing vocalizations from Del Rey. Later album tracks also feature guest spots from Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon.
Of course, what you’re likely to notice even before the album’s guest spots is Del Rey’s glowing smile on the album cover, which is a stark contrast to the apathetic grimace that she’s previously worn on all of her other albums. Furthermore, a title like Lust For Life comes as an interesting contrast from an artist whose major-label debut was entitled Born To Die.
You wouldn’t be off-base in wondering if this is indicative of the tone of the album, though Del Rey has hardly abandoned her trademark tragedy. The dreamy “13 Beaches” mourns lost love among synths and strings, while the beat-laced piano ballad “White Mustang” and Sean Ono Lennon duet “Tomorrow Never Came” explore romantic regret. “Heroin” perhaps hits the hardest, an otherworldly composition about addiction to the titular drug laced with Charles Manson references.
But from the first track, “Love,” Del Rey presents hope and optimism not much explored in her work previously, not to mention an awareness of the world around her. As the lead single and one of the most instantly compelling tracks on Lust For Life, “Love” addresses the young generation and acknowledges where the world is, saying “It’s enough just to make you go crazy, crazy, crazy,” while issuing reassurances and proclaiming, “It’s enough to be young / And in love.”
What really comes as a surprise on Lust For Life, however, is its acknowledgments of current affairs. “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind” has an eyeroll-inducing title, but she sells it with the pleading chorus of “I’d trade it all for a stairway to heaven” as she considers the ramifications of tensions with North Korea while attending Coachella. She digs in even deeper in further tracks, taking on the state of America under Donald Trump with female solidarity in “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” and encouraging hope in hopeless times in succeeding track “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing.”
It all seems to come together in the mission statement presented in the last two tracks. In “Change,” a stripped-down piano ballad that was a last-minute addition to the album, she considers, “Lately I’ve been thinking / It’s just someone else’s job to care,” but decides to hold herself to a higher standard, insisting, “There’s a change gonna come / I don’t know where or when / But whenever it does / We’ll be here for it.” Energetic closer “Get Free” closes off this declaration, the chorus powerfully referencing back to her apathy in Paradise’s “Ride” before establishing, “I never really noticed that I had to decide / To play someone’s game or live my own life / And now I do / I want to move / Out of the black / Into the blue.” It leaves you with a strong sense of hope for the future as the album fades into ambience and distant seagull cries.
What this all means for the audience of Lust For Life is hard to say; it maintains the essential Lana Del Rey feel and many of her key themes, and without a close comparison, you may not notice the difference much at all. But her overt self-awareness on the album adds a compelling element to her uncanny, nostalgic aesthetic, and it’ll be enough to satisfy longtime fans while also being a sound argument for latecomers to jump on the train. But from the sounds of it, Del Rey’s only just begun her musical transformation, and it’s hard not to ponder where these shifts will take her next. All I know is that wherever she goes next, I’ll be here for it.