The 2019 Album of the Year

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Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor/Interscope)

Back in the mid-2010s I attended a panel discussion whose topic was something to the effect of, “Why are there no classic albums anymore, and what makes a true classic album?” There was a lot of good discussion, but the conversation kept drifting away from the crux of it all, which drove me nuts, and not really identifying what makes an album like Blue, Tapestry, Blood on the Tracks, The Songs of Leonard Cohen canonical.

Personally, I believe there are three major criteria for a true classic record: an artistic peak, universal critical acclaim (either immediate or belated) and commercial success. It’s a lightning in a bottle situation, and in this day and age where there are so many dissenting voices, it’s extremely rare to see critics and music nerds finding common ground on anything, and even rarer to have an album that those “elite” voices praise become part of the collective consciousness. If you were to ask me what albums from the 2010s would qualify as classics by that definition, I’d say Beyonce’s Lemonade, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Adele’s 21, Taylor Swift’s Red, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and my own favourite of the entire lot, and this year’s Album of the Year, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!.

I always liked Lana Del Rey’s shtick, and have grown to admire her increasing confidence as both a singer and a songwriter. Born to Die was decent, Ultraviolence was jarringly good, Honeymoon was pretty, Lust For Life was sporadically great but mired by too many guests. Still, I did not anticipate, not by a long shot, the kind of quantum leap Lizzy Grant would make on her fifth album as Lana Del Rey.

In retrospect, “Venice Bitch” was actually the dead giveaway that something special was in the works. My fourth favourite track of 2018, it was (and still is) so daring for a mainstream pop track, as producer Jack Antonoff stretches it out into a nine and a half minute progressive rock torch song. And on Norman Fucking Rockwell! (exclamation point included) that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Antonoff trims off all the fat that made Lust For Life such a (fun) mess, putting Del Rey front and centre, and that includes his own role on the record. Most pop producers these days waste no time putting their own stamp on an artist’s album, but not Antonoff. The man is incredibly malleable, and he serves Del Rey’s artistic vision perfectly, making inspired choices but never overshadowing her. And Del Rey returns the favour with the strongest writing and singing of her career.

From day one Lana’s gimmick was in part depicting a sense of longing for a quixotic, highly idealized vision of America, but in the last couple years she had a sense of clarity. Love songs are her forte, but this time around, there’s a deep undercurrent of sadness, and that’s where the real heart of Norman Fucking Rockwell! lies. The complacent, post-war, pre-civil rights white America of the 1950s, something social conservatives pine for to this day, is long dead, which Del Rey realized. This album is a requiem for a republic damaged beyond repair. “One portion of the dots that people are connecting is: ‘Is it possible that this presidency is engendering this idea that it’s O.K. to be more violent?'” she told the New York times this past summer. “And a lot of people are saying yes. Someone who says ‘grab ’em by the pussy,’ that does make someone else feel a little bit more entitled to bring his rifle to school. If there wasn’t a time for protest music, there absolutely is now.”

The sadness can be crushing, the world is falling apart with Trump America leading the way straight to hell, and Del Rey is willing to wallow with her listeners, providing solace with gorgeous, swooning melodies and some wickedly dry humour. “Hawaii just missed that fireball / L.A. is in flames‚ it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone / ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song,” she sings on the beautiful “The Greatest”, adding sardonically, “I hope the live stream’s almost on.” From start to finish, Norman Fucking Rockwell! feels timeless and retro, traditional and prescient, introspective and socially aware, restrained and epic in scope. And yes, this ranks right up there with Blue, Tapestry, Blood on the Tracks, and The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Lana Del Rey is the voice popular culture so desperately needed in 2019, and I am so grateful to have been alive to experience it. The culture is lit, and we sure had a ball. Bring on the 2020s.