I wanted to believe in Lana Del Rey. When I came across “Video Games’’ last summer, it was just a song making the rounds on music blogs. Nobody knew much about the singer or her past. It was better that way.
From the moment I watched the ballad’s homemade video, I vowed right then that I would follow that voice down a dark alley and relish whatever horrible fate awaited me. I was smitten with a singer who nailed something I had always felt: “They say that the world was built for two / Only worth living if somebody / Is loving you.’’
Del Rey delivered a sublime performance, taut and seductive all at once; and it could have been a blueprint for her new album.
Instead “Born to Die,’’ which, following months of intense anticipation, will be released by Interscope on Tuesday, is a staggering disappointment. After a long, sweet drag on “Video Games,’’ her major-label debut feels like the sputtering cough that inevitably burns your lungs. Even with the deluxe version’s 15 songs, it’s more of a sketch than a statement.
Del Rey might be the most glaring of modern cautionary tales about how we consume pop culture and our insatiable desire to crown the next best thing. At 25, she’s proof that we’re eager to exalt artists even when they’re not ready for - or even worthy of - the sudden push.
By the time she performed on “Saturday Night Live’’ this month, she was already doomed. The social-media hive immediately savaged her shaky performance for the very qualities that initially sparked interest in the singer: She’s aloof, practically a caricature of a siren with that mercurial voice, big doe eyes cast downward, and those infamous lips locked in a perma-pout.
That live performance was not her best; I’ve heard others, in which Del Rey colored her songs with guttural dips and wild swoops, that suggested she has real talent beneath that manicured image. And I maintain that “Video Games’’ is a great song. It’s not a marvel of songwriting, but it was immaculate and seemed like a natural extension of Adele’s heart-on-sleeve pop. If Cat Power had released that song, it would have been a minor hit with no sniping about its origins.
I sighed as each subsequent song watered down what made “Video Games’’ so gripping. Up next was “Blue Jeans,’’ which played up the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra’’ comparison Del Rey liked to float early on. Finally, we got “Born to Die,’’ a skeletal teaser for the album that sums up her appeal: She’s tender but tough.
“Video Games’’ was so arresting that, at first, no one cared about the details that eventually made Del Rey such a polarizing figure. From her looks (even with those lips, she’s gorgeous!) to her dubious authenticity (she’s seems so indie, but she’s signed to a major label and has a team of handlers?!), Del Rey hit serious turbulence while she was still on the tarmac.
I didn’t understand critics who crowed about Del Rey’s transformation from earnest amateur to sex kitten. Just a few years ago she was singing at open mikes around New York under her given name, Lizzy Grant. When that didn’t pan out, she became the more exotic Lana Del Rey.
So what? Reinvention is the bedrock of pop music. By the time most of us caught up to Lady Gaga, she was already a bottle-blonde rocking a hair bow and shades, not the brunette piano pounder that she once was, playing to sparse crowds in cozy dive bars.
As the buzz built, Del Rey unfairly got thrown into the lion’s den, although it’s hard to pity someone who so clearly craves the limelight. Even Del Rey admits on the new album that she’s finally getting a taste of her dreams. “Everything I want, I have / Money, notoriety, and rivieras / I even think I found God / In the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,’’ she sings on “Without You,’’ one of three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition.
After months of scrutinizing her back story, we finally have her album. It underwhelms. “Born to Die’’ toes the line between frothy electro-pop, ambient trip-hop textures, and orchestral pomp. Del Rey is credited with co-writing all of its songs with various collaborators, which might explain the mood swings but sheds no light on Del Rey’s jarring lack of conviction. For such an anticipated album, Del Rey sounds like the last guest to arrive at her own party.
The memorable melodies are long gone. The arrangements are paper-thin - recycled paper, no less. The most grating stuff here, “Lolita,’’ “Lucky Ones,’’ “Off to the Races,’’ sounds like filler Lady Gaga left in the trash bin. Worst of all, sorely missing is the self-possession that made Del Rey so alluring on “Video Games.’’
Not surprisingly, she takes the reins on the songs that feel like flip sides to that tune’s rainy-day melancholy. “Summertime Sadness’’ and “Million Dollar Man,’’ both slow-burners about love letting you down, let Del Rey unfurl that majestic voice like an old-world torch singer. That mode suits her.
A half-hearted attempt to rap on “National Anthem’’ is sadly misguided, and the entire song derails as soon as Del Rey opens her mouth: “Money is the anthem of success / So before we go out / What’s your address?’’
Is that all there is to Lana Del Rey? It’s too soon to tell, just as her “SNL’’ appearance felt similarly premature. In the meantime, we do know that “Born to Die’’ was rushed to the marketplace, a half-baked confection that might have turned out better once Del Rey knows how to channel her talents. Right now, she’s a work in progress. Or in the parlance of the old Hollywood glamour Del Rey strives for, she’s not ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.
“Born to Die’’ did teach me something, though. If I’m going to believe in an artist, she has to believe in herself first.