Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana del Rey

2019

There’s a great pub in Burgess Hill called The Woolpack. It’s a family run pub, serving Harvey’s and good quality pub grub. Exactly the sort of pub I like. Burgess Hill is a very ordinary town which is meant as the highest compliment. It’s not extraordinary. To generalise, people in Burgess Hill have no pretensions. I was very pleased and proud to have taught in Burgess Hill for over thirteen years as the children in the school were, again to generalise, friendly and accommodating – once they got to know and trust you. The clientele of The Woolpack seem to be very typical of Burgess Hill. Determined to have a good time but making sure that nobody “gets above themselves” as my Dad would have said.

Every month, The Woolpack runs a pub quiz. Pete has invited me to a few of these along with some of his friends from the Business Park Association. Three very successful business owners, all running highly profitable enterprises. Friendly, intelligent and funny. To complete the team of six is the ex Head of Languages at Oakmeeds, one of the funniest (and rudest) people you could hope to meet. As a quiz team, that sounds unbeatable. In fact, on the one occasion I couldn’t make it, they did win. It’s not surprising really; Pete has wide general knowledge, three teachers and three successful business owners. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll tell you what could go wrong. It happened on February 13th this year. We all met up at the pub and ordered food and drink. The pub was packed and there were probably over twenty teams. The guy that normally runs the quiz was worryingly absent and a much younger bloke introduced himself by saying we would be pleased to know that every question was based on the last ten years. Nothing before 2010. The response from our team was of incredulity that we could possibly be pleased to know this. None of us were under fifty years old and one was over seventy. Specialist subjects include Aston Martin cars in James Bond films, Harold Wilson’s first two governments and Neil Young’s ditch trilogy. One of the rounds was on music and Pete stitched me up by announcing to his friends that I knew a lot about music. We were played ten extracts from well known female artists of the last ten years whom we had to identify. The answers were Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, Billy Eilish, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Leys and Lana del Rey. Most of the teams scored ten. We scored zero. Not that I’d have recognised Adele but she wasn’t included which was a shame because, in desperation, we wrote Adele for every answer. Not only did we come last in the whole quiz but the team that came second to last scored twelve more points than us. The humiliation was offset by the good company, the laughs and the beautiful Harvey’s.

What made this particular round even worse was that one of the singers was Lana del Rey and only a couple of months previously I had bought “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” on the basis that The Guardian made it their album of the year as well as being the seventh best album of the year in MOJO and the fifth best in UNCUT. In my defence, whatever song it was that was played for ten seconds in The Woolpack, it wasn’t from this album.

At five thirty yesterday morning, Roo and I were woken up by an enormous crash. With my anxiety levels on the increase, I assumed someone had broken into the house downstairs to steal the television, the dog or possibly my Beatles books. I ran downstairs. Hang on, that’s not right. I stiffly shuffled downstairs to find Bruno wagging his tail and all key possessions intact. I crawled back upstairs to find a shelf in the “study” had collapsed. I had tested out the weight bearing load of the top shelf by placing several copies of Wisden on it and I can confidently state that ten Wisden along with twenty copies of UNCUT is too much. After going back to sleep and walking Bruno, I decided to tidy up the study. I had about fifty CDs all over the place and not in their “correct” position. I had a highly satisfying hour putting everything back and creating a shelf full of recently acquired CDs. In alphabetical order, obviously. These are the CDs that I think I need to explore more. I picked up “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” and was reminded how much I had played it when I first got it and how much I enjoyed it. I have now played it three times today and it is really excellent.

In 1966, John Lennon courted controversy by stating that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Of course, his comments were misinterpreted, especially in the USA. He meant that Christianity was on the decline in the U.K. and that aspects of modern culture, for example, The Beatles, had become more popular. It was an undeniable fact in the U.K. but it led to the burning of Beatles records in the USA where they subsequently toured in fear for their lives. The medium used to express his opinions was an interview with Maureen Cleave in The Evening Standard. These days, musicians (or any celebrities) express their opinions via social media rather than through a daily newspaper. Lana del Rey posted on Instagram in May of this year and stated that she felt she was unfairly criticised for advocating for “the more delicate and often dismissed, softer female personality”. She compared her songs to those of other artists who wrote sings about “being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc.” She gave examples of such artists, many of whom were women of colour. This has led to her being abused on social media of being racist, especially in the context of the “Black Lives Matters” movement. This has inevitably resulted in thousands of exchanges including further posts by Lana del Rey defending her point of view and categorically denying any racist thoughts.

I hope I’m not too prejudiced in terms of race and I am determined to eliminate any unconscious bias. I know, however, that I am prejudiced against artists who get into the singles charts. Actually, that prejudice has probably existed since the Seventies when I refused to acknowledge that Queen or ABBA could have any artistic value. Maybe it started when “Please Release Me” kept “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” from getting to Number One in 1967. Anyway, I have never accepted that any of the artists played in The Woolpack quiz could be any good.

Lana del Rey has had five Top Ten singles in the U.K. over the past ten years. She has sold over 19 million albums and 13 million singles. She has released six albums but the first one was withdrawn. Of the other five albums, four have got to Number One in the U.K. charts and the other one (“Honeymoon”) got to Number Two. In my prejudicial state of mind, this means they can’t be any good. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that a couple of weeks ago the Number One album in the charts was “Rough And Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan and the Number Two album was “Homegrown” by Neil Young. I have them both. They’re great. “It just goes to show how wrong I can be” as The Dream Syndicate sung all those years ago in “Until Lately”. Which is apposite because until lately I assumed chart success equated to artistic failure but now I’ve changed my mind.

There are a huge number of lyrical references to other songs and artists on this album. Here are some examples. “You took my sadness out of context at the Mariner’s Apartment Complex. I ain’t no candle in the wind”. “Can’t a girl just do the best she can. Catch a wave and take in the sweetness”. “Baby, I’m your man”. “Dream a little dream of me. Make me into something sweet”. “Summertime and the living’s easy. Bradley’s on the microphone with Ras MG”. “Me and Louie, we’re going to run to the party and dance to the rhythm”. “Those nights were on fire – we couldn’t get any higher”. “All those ladies of the canyon wearing black to their house parties”. “But sometimes girls just wanna have fun. The poetry inside me is warm like a gun”. Track 7 is called “Cinnamon Girl”. There are also references to The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Kanye West, Slim Aarons, Sylvia Plath, “Life On Mars?” and “Houses Of The Holy”. And these are just the ones that I recognise. I’m sure there’s more.

The album consists of 14 songs and lasts nearly one hour and ten minutes. Yet there’s not a weak song or even a wasted moment on it. Rolling Stone’s review stated that “the long-awaited “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is even more massive and majestic than everyone hoped it would be. Lana turns her fifth and finest album into a tour of sordid American dreams, going deep cover in all our nation’s most twisted fantasies of glamour and danger.”

The second track is “Mariners Apartment Complex” and Marc Hogan described the song as “a somber 1970s-style rock ballad with piano, acoustic guitar, and swooping strings.” Mark Beaumont called it “a classically Del Rey smoulder of silken acoustic country music and orchestral washes.” These descriptions work for most songs on the album. It’s a modern sound but rooted in a singer-songwriter tradition. Lyrically, most songs are about misunderstandings in relationships but musically the sound is sunny. For example, Lana Del Rey said about “Mariners Apartment Complex” “it’s about this time I took a walk late at night with a guy I was seeing, and we stopped in front his friend’s apartment complex, and he put his hand around my shoulder, and he said “I think we are together because we’re both similar, like we’re both really messed up” and I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. And I said, “I’m not sad, I didn’t know that’s why you thought you were relating to me on that level, I’m actually doing pretty good”. And he was upset, and that’s when I wrote the song.”

“Venice Bitch” is nearly ten minutes long and features some interesting synthesiser playing towards the end of the song as she sings “Oh God I want you on my lips. It’s me, your little Venice bitch”. “Rolling Stone” said that it “starts as an tender ballad, with Del Rey unspooling her unique mix of young love and contemporary Americana over an acoustic guitar. Halfway through, though, “Venice Bitch” transforms into an airy psych-pop jam that coasts to a cerebral, polychrome end.” It’s an astounding piece of dreamy California sun-drenched pop.”

“Venice Bitch”

“How To Disappear” is another sombre song about two people who can’t connect. The beauty of the melody and the strength of her singing makes this easy listening. That’s normally a bit of an insult but in this case it means just what it says – it’s very easy to listen to.

“How To Disappear”

I don’t really have a favourite song on the album but I love the track “California”. In this song she has read a friend’s letter that he wrote to someone else where it is clear that his mental health is suffering. She extends warmth and love towards him and tells him that if he ever comes back to America, she will be there for him. The song is a bit of a showcase for her vocal range which swoops from deep crooning to a higher pitched gentleness. It’s lovely.

“California”

The last song is “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It” which is a bit of a confessional covering religion, family, alcoholism, relationships and fame. Musically it is simple with just a piano accompaniment. After all the heartache of the album and this song in particular, by singing the title, the ending is uplifting and optimistic. That’s more like it.

“Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

One thought on “Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana del Rey

  1. Do you think that a musician thanking Apple, as she does at the beginning of ‘How to Disappear’, for ‘changing our lives’, is a little like a Christmas turkey thanking an oven manufacturer??

    Liked by 1 person

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