"Feet don't fail me now," Lana Del Rey groans as her debut album, Born to Die, ushers itself in with a flourish of strings and sampled moans. It's a curiously unconfident first step for any singer, but especially so for this one, whose every move has been chronicled by every website worth its Google PageRank since the release of her first single last August. She has gone from rising star to whipping post and back again, sometimes in the same week, if not the same 24-hour span.
And now here is Born to Die, a case study in the blog star's debut album as anticlimax, or in the humiliating way up-and-coming starlets are treated by the media as a matter of course, or in how a major label can use both concepts to get a developing artist boatloads of press before that person has said much of anything of artistic import. The latter strategy at least seems appropriate to the subject matter at hand here; Del Rey's songs give a voice to the women endlessly photographed on nu-paparazzi sites like Last Night's Party, glamorously spilling drinks as they give their sexiest looks to the camera. Revelry does get name-checked in the lyrics — shout-outs to Bacardi and Pabst Blue Ribbon — but so do the zip-addled fucks and heartbreaks that inevitably result when the flashbulbs stop popping and the free liquor runs out.
"This Is What Makes Us Girls," the album's finale, is its thesis statement in a way; "We all look for heaven, and we put love first," Del Rey mewls over a percussive track that brings to mind self-consciously hip restaurant-lounges that opened in 2000 and remain in business because of the insane markup on bottle-service liquor. Chronicling the debauchery she had with her friends as a nubile teen — giving the cops the slip while clad in bikini tops; drinking the aforementioned PBR ("on ice") — it asserts that what makes Del Rey and her pals "girls" are the men (man-boys, really) who act as a mirror for their collective femininity. The cover of Born to Die shows the singer, steely-eyed and clad in a sheer white top, watching the camera with a withering look that's either an invitation to a staring contest or an air of utter boredom at being watched again; the lyrics often have Del Rey placing herself just off the center of the panopticon. On "Video Games," the lament that got the Lana Del Rey phenomenon rolling, the singer sounds like she could be watching herself on closed-circuit TV; she narrates her own doings in a detached way, only fully committing herself to opening her voice wide when she cries out to her similarly disaffected lover that "it's you, it's you, it's all for you."
Most of Born to Die is for "you" as well. These lyrics are all taken from different songs: "No one compares to you/ But there's no you." "I'm your national anthem." "You're no good for me/ But baby, I want you." The life presented on Born to Die is one where hedonistic pleasure can only take over fully if the other — that "you," which could be a person or a number of people or the people watching and listening Del Rey's every move — is satisfied simultaneously. But it's an impossible task, one that only lives in bodice-ripping novels and romantic comedies.
Born to Die will make for a hell of a text on 21st-century girlhood once all the dust settles. But as an album, it's a chore to listen to. The standard edition's 12 songs chug along like dirges and are largely free of anything resembling evolution or even a musical narrative arc. It sounds expensive, sonically wall-to-wall-carpeted, but its individual songs often fall victim to the current malady of atmospherics trumping melody ("Holocene"; "We Found Love"). At its least inspired, Born to Die sounds like one of the fourth-tier trip-hop albums with promotional CDs that would fill up the 99-cent racks weeks before its official release date.
Then there are Del Rey's vocal hiccups and tics, clearly meant to be heard under the seductive cover of night and instead sounding alternately grating and ludicrous when listened to outside of the context of a backseat. When she raps on "National Anthem," her huffy style brings to mind the bellowed bridge of EMF's 1990 No. 1 "Unbelievable"; her wavering voice when she decides to plumb her lower register makes her sound like she's going to begin weeping at any moment. (Feet, don't fail her now.) The repeated clichés — "take you downtown," "you the best," America and its dreams — bring to mind uninspired sex talk, the sort of banter that accompanies one-night stands where only biological imperatives are satisfied.
But maybe shining a harsh light on the ridiculousness of seduction — and its often-frustrating payoff when it does work — is part of the point, part of the Lana Del Rey Project being attributed to her by so many members of the commentariat. The album has an overwhelming feeling of anhedonia, even though its trappings telegraph glamour; while the likes of Kanye West and Del Rey's labelmate Lady Gaga have been more than happy to let the hoi polloi know that the good life ain't all it's cracked up to be, Born to Die has little evidence that it can be any good at all.
At least, not until "This Is What Makes Us Girls" ends with Del Rey leaving her pals behind, "cryin' cause I know I'm never comin' back" but vowing to her friends that "it's all going to happen." That it closes the standard edition of the album offers a small spark of hope; it brings to mind the end of the similarly disaffected girlhood chronicle Ghost World, when the heroine hops a bus out of town in order to see what the world beyond the life she has already lived might have to offer. And it's incredibly appropriate here, because Born to Die is an album with the timeless pop question "Is that all there is?" lurking, obviously and ominously, behind its every moan and underneath each reheated Sneaker Pimps beat. Whether or not the vicious cycle of bloggability allows Del Rey to explore the answer to that question on a second album is, of course, another story.