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It’s clear from an initial glance at the album art that there’s something different about Lana Del Rey’s sixth full-length album, “Norman Fucking Rockwell.” Unlike the cover art of every other album she has released, she isn’t the only figure who populates it: her arm is wrapped around model Duke Nicholson who stares stoically and expressionless into the sea beyond them. Rather than a plain or vaguely symbolic background behind her, the background of the “Norman Fucking Rockwell” cover art is detailed: The American flag is flying behind them beneath the mast of their sailboat and in front and the sea and the sky. Rather than a moody stare or a blank expression, Lana herself is reaching out to the camera, recognizing the audience, almost as if she was trying to invite her listeners to come with her on a journey.
On “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” Del Rey has found her ground. It’s a deeply personal album that she made primarily with one close collaborator, Jack Antonoff. This sets it a mile away from her 2017 release “Lust for Life,” which featured a range of notable artists including A$AP Rocky, Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks. Del Rey’s voice is at the center of every track; Antonoff’s influence feels inaudible. Her half-literary and emotionally infused style of writing shine through like a gem. “If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first whoever did,” she sings in “Cinnamon Girl.” Her dreamy, breathy vocals haven’t changed since “Born To Die.” It’s hard to disaggregate the individual tracks on “Norman Fucking Rockwell.” It’s amazingly difficult to pick favorites, and when listened in any order the whole of it hits you like a pile of bricks.
For better or worse, the experience of listening to “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is like allowing Del Rey to trap you in her world until you force yourself out. Piece by piece, the album tells the story of where she is in her life right now. Through poetic lyrics and allusions to songs, places and past versions of herself, she lays every piece of herself into the album. Her nostalgic and purposefully naive American patriotism has overcome its brutal melodrama.
The American flag she draped over herself and flew above her head while riding a motorcycle across the desert in the “Ride” era doesn’t overpower her songs anymore; the flag imagery in “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is muted and largely set in the background. They are a subtle footnote within each deeply nostalgic song. It’s clear that Del Rey still situates herself in the tradition of artists swallowed whole by America’s helplessly romantic ideals, but rather than letting her music be retellings of them, she lets it speak through her now—in her own words. The tracks no longer build-up to an orgasmic fever pitch in the same way they did on “Ultraviolence,” “Born to Die” or “Honeymoon.” Every track feels like its standing alone; her music has moved beyond swooning but still holds the overpowering emotion that her fans fell in love with.
I discovered Lana Del Rey in the eighth grade and listened to every album she released every summer since then. My own memories and the many places I have lived and spent summers are helplessly intertwined within each song she has released over the course of her career. Listening to “Norman Fucking Rockwell” in the summer before I turn 20 feels like watching a friend enter fully into adulthood, as though all of the nascent parts of them that I knew and grew up with are falling into their final places.
Lana Del Rey has always been under-evaluated as someone who always has a deep appreciation for where she lives in both American music and art history. She’s always been an artist difficult to listen to casually; her music has always rewarded those who are willing to take apart every lyric and understand every literary and musical reference. When these are put together, listeners are allowed to fully understand the ethos that drives her music. “Norman Fucking Rockwell” is everything that the followers of Del Rey’s music have been asking for and more, it undoubtedly holds enough power to recruit a new batch of devotees.