The Sublime joy of Lana Del Rey covering “Doin’ Time”

Let’s not overthink it.

May 20, 2019
The Sublime joy of Lana Del Rey covering “Doin’ Time” Original photo: Stephanie Keith / Getty Images Augmentation: DeepDream Generator  

A few months back, some pals and I decided in the group text that the song of the summer was going to be “Only Wanna Be With You,” the banger from Hootie & the Blowfish’s ‘94 breakthrough album, Cracked Rear View. This also happened to be the first album I ever purchased on CD, though I couldn’t tell you why — it was probably in the front rack of Coconuts and the name sounded cool to me because I was, like, eight. In any case, “Only Wanna Be With You” seemed an excellent candidate for song of the summer consideration: it’s fun to sing in a ‘90s roots-rock-bro voice, pretty much everyone knows the chorus, and in the video, Darius Rucker and company golf a bunch and acquire their own NBA franchise. It’s a song that makes you feel like an uncle halfway through his fourth Corona. Everything checks out!

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Well, we were close — a few years early, but the puka shell necklace still applies. I’ve always thought that a good rule of thumb for major decisions is to defer to whatever Lana Del Rey would do. So, last Friday, when the reigning queen of doomed Americana lay down a fittingly doomed gauntlet for S.O.S. ‘19, it seemed only right to oblige her. Yes, folks: the song of the summer is “Doin’ Time” by Sublime, as sung by Lana herself for the soundtrack of an upcoming documentary on the tragic glory of the SoCal sleaze-masters and their late frontman Bradley Nowell.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t listen to at least one Sublime song,” Del Rey announced along with the track’s release. At first this registered as kind of a mind-blowing statement — of all the celebrities I picture rocking out to some third-wave ska on the daily, Lana is not exactly the first to come to mind. (That, obviously, is Justin Bieber.) But the more you think about it, the affinity makes total sense: Sublime’s songs, like LDR’s songs, are set in the shadowy corners of California, teeming with star-crossed lovers, transcendental depravity, and A-1 storytelling that never really gets its due credit. Both load their songs with references on references, be they to Walt Whitman and Elvis or KRS-One and Bob Marley. The last time I reviewed a Lana Del Rey album, I literally described it as “sublime,” though apparently the band didn’t know what the word meant when Nowell’s girlfriend picked it randomly from a dictionary. Which is tight as hell, honestly.

Naturally, of all the Sublime cuts, Del Rey would go with “Doin’ Time”: it’s essentially the “Summertime Sadness” of the Sublime discography, in which the living’s supposedly easy but the frontman’s been dead for two months. (Although now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible that “Summertime Sadness” and “40oz. to Freedom” are parallel descriptions of the same date, twenty years removed. Go look up the lyrics and tell me I’m wrong.) The George Gershwin sample gone trip-hop is straight out of Lana’s wheelhouse, like something she might’ve done on Born To Die that could have soundtracked a long-lost Mad Men episode where Don gets robbed by a seductive tweaker he meets in a Long Beach dive bar. The song’s devoted to the quintessential LDR theme of being hopelessly devoted to your significant other who treats you like shit but you kind of like it. I challenge anyone to read the following lyrics and say with certainty whether they were written by Del Rey or Nowell: “Oh, take this veil from my eyes / My burning sun will someday rise.” All of which is to say that the little Venice bitch appears additionally well qualified to represent the LBC; I might even suggest that her version of “Doin’ Time” improves upon the original, with its slinkier arrangement and fluttering bridge, but I’ve always been more of a “Wrong Way” loyalist myself.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sublime since Del Rey’s cover came out, and have been pleasantly surprised at how well their best songs hold up. Granted, there’s also a great deal of dorm room bong hit nonsense as to be expected, alongside some stuff that would’ve gotten Nowell and his bandmates insta-canceled had it come out in 2019 and not 1991. (Is “Date Rape” the most capital-P Problematic song ever made? It’s at least top 10.) But the ultimate Sublime songs — “Santeria,” “40oz. to Freedom,” “Garden Grove,” the latter of which Del Rey was caught jamming to in the studio with Jack Antonoff last year — transcend the “ever seen the back of a $20 bill on weed?!” stereotypes to reveal some straight-up masterful songwriting. Sometimes these songs feel a bit like chapters in a short story collection by dirtbag greats like Denis Johnson or Raymond Carver, full of stories that are captivating not in spite of their sketchiness, but because of it. (Cue me, age 10, thinking “That’s some real shit” from the suburban home of my happily married parents as Nowell hollered, “The only family that she ever had were her seven horny brothers and her drunk ass dad!”)

But there’s something weirdly comforting about even the corniest ska-punk stonerisms on an album like 40oz. To Freedom, from which “Doin’ Time” originates. Possibly this is because current-day weed culture is somehow even lamer than ‘90s weed culture — give me ponchos and gravity bongs over weedtrepreneurs and CBD lattes any day of the week. Beyond that, though, there’s some relief in surrendering to Sublime’s derelict slacker tao at this particular moment, when our underpaid, overstimulated burnout is only intensified by the existential futility that stems from the fact that we maybe have a decade before the earth completely shits itself. In the midst of all that, it feels pretty good to spend some vicarious time in Long Beach circa ‘96, where the answers to all life’s questions arrive via lukewarm Colt 45s. Maybe Lana feels it too, and that’s why Bradley Nowell has taken his rightful spot in the LDR universe of American icons singing their swan songs. Or maybe Sublime simply kicks ass. Let’s not overthink it. Open the windows, throw on “Doin’ Time,” and smoke one for Lou Dog. Shit, smoke two.

The Sublime joy of Lana Del Rey covering “Doin’ Time”