In a world where you are made to feel like you know everything about your favorite pop stars, Lana Del Rey is an anomaly. Contradictory in her songs, and evasive outside of them, no one really knows her—though one person who seems to come close is James Franco. In an illuminating poem-meets-essay penned for V Magazine back in January, the actor highlighted a particular problem the public has when digesting what Del Rey is all about. “The thing about singers, especially the ones who write their own lyrics, is that everyone reads the person into the songs,” Franco wrote. “A singer is asked about her lyrics as if they were direct statements of her true thoughts and feelings.” According to Franco, this elusive boundary between Del Rey as reality and fiction in her music has bled into the media’s portrayal of her: “Sometimes Lana doesn’t know what to say in interviews, so she plays into the idea that her songs are her, and not her creations.”
This would explain a lot of the media uproar during the promotion of her second album Ultraviolence, when the press leapt on Del Rey’s interview responses as truths, especially when she told a Guardian reporter that she wished she was dead and mentioned in her FADER cover story that she was “not really that interested” in feminism. By contrast, in the lead-up to her languid third album Honeymoon, Del Rey has given minimal interviews. Instead, she’s been focusing on fleshing out that voice in her music. Aside from a T. S. Eilot poem she reads as an interlude and a Nina Simone cover, Del Rey wrote every song on Honeymoon with Rick Nowels, and produced every song with Nowels and Kieron Menzies. The result is her most fluid work to date, gliding through uniformly long, luxurious epics that explore the specter of Del Rey from more angles than we’ve ever seen before.
This album is Lana Del Rey at the most self-aware and self-realized she’s ever been, but it will leave you as bemused as ever as to who she really is. Honeymoon literally opens with Del Rey singing we both know it’s not fashionable to love me, a strikingly incisive line from the mouth of a retro pop star. But this is Lana Del Rey speaking, and so even at her most self-realized, she’s non-committal and impenetrable; one second she’s throwing herself on the ground to worship your never-ending love, and the next she’s watching boys skate by over the top of her cat-eye sunglasses. In the throes of the devil-may-care Honeymoon, it makes sense that Del Rey would be vague when asked if she stands for feminism, because this Del Rey is the queen of nihilist pop. She stands for absolutely nothing.
On the cover of Honeymoon, Del Rey sets you up to expect her coolest, most distant embodiment of this persona yet. She looks down on the world from above, hidden behind hat and shades, sharply removed from the portraits that covered her first two records. But the new vantage point she occupies on this album—everything looks better from above, she sings over the breezy march of “Salvatore”—feels, in some ways, more intimate than ever. She breaks away from having—as Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton, ”the poem Del Rey quotes on the album—the look of flowers that are looked at. Instead, she becomes the looker: for the most obvious example, there’s the female gaze pop song “Music To Watch Boys To.” With a multi-tracked vocal the reflects a split personality, she says in one breath I like you a lot, while admitting in the next, more distorted line to putting on my music while I’m watching the boys. Even more unnervingly, she then warns you she’s been sent to destroy. Rather than presenting a straightforward image of a submissive woman in desperate love, as she’s been accused of doing in the past, she adds the crackling undercurrent of her own desire and power. After playing the victim for a lot of Ultraviolence, suddenly she’s dangerous.
There are still songs on Honeymoon that are canon Del Rey, tracks that bask in the doomed pleasure of throwing yourself unquestioningly into love, like “Religion,” which is (obviously!) about worshipping her lover like a religion. But just as The Weeknd toys with what it would mean for his loveless, sadist character to become vulnerable on his chart-topping Beauty Behind The Madness, Del Rey explores what it would mean for her submissive character to become weaponized and aggressive. On the seductive, slow-grinding “Freak,” she orders a lover to come to California and be a freak like me, too. Meanwhile, “24” carries a warning to a lying partner—be careful of the ones you choose to leave. “Blackest Day” morphs from a string-laden ballad about how sad she’s been since baby went away into a threatening interlude that insists: You should have known better...I’ve got you where I want you now.
On “High By The Beach," with its infectious programmed drums, Del Rey has never sounded more in control. She opens with Boy, look at you, looking at me, once again putting the man firmly in her gaze and giving the impression you’ll never fully get what’s going on inside her head. She goes on to drawl, in her most carefree chorus ever, the truth is, I never bought into your bullshit. She could be speaking to anyone, and it’s tempting to hear it as a clapback to the media, especially in light of her violent revenge on paparazzi in the song’s official video. But the point is exactly that it doesn’t matter, because Del Rey doesn’t care—all she wants to do is get high by the beach. Listening to the velvety hip-hop thump of this tune, that’s pretty much all the we want to do, too.
For the final track of the album, she sings a surprisingly joyful cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood," all sparkling synths and coy vocal tics. It comes across as a wry joke; is she borrowing someone else’s song to demand you take her authorship seriously? From the mouth of the artist who once told James Franco (perhaps in reality, perhaps in his imagination): "Just write around me...it’s almost better if you don’t get me exactly, but try,” the song comes off as being somewhere between sincere and not. It’s not like she actually wants you to understand her, but to stop pointlessly trying to understand. It’s a plea to no one in particular, burning up like a bright beautiful flare, or maybe a helicopter.