Lana Del Rey just wasn’t made for these times. “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me,” she sings on Honeymoon‘s title track, and she’s not wrong. At a time when most pop stars still gravitate toward digitally-crafted, club-oriented music (see: Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez), she favors slow, orchestral strings, horns, and percussion on her new album, which Rey produced alongside Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies with a “muddy trap energy” in mind. While Top 40 remains pretty upbeat, she’s a hardcore fatalist, insisting that “I’ve got nothing much to live for” on the tears-on-my-pillow lullaby “God Knows I Tried.” In a cultural moment when feminist self-empowerment rules, she’s passive, wounded, forever chasing Mr. Born to Lose, as she calls him on the title track, even though she’s aware of “the history of violence that surrounds” him.
It’s enough to make you wonder: How is it possible that critics once accused Del Rey of being a puppet for aging record-label execs who recast her as an old-fashioned ideal of femme-fatale seduction? If her label was actually trying to manufacture the pop star of the future, would she really look and sound like this?
You can’t exactly call Del Rey radical. Her taste is too old school, and Honeymoon‘s Quaalude-doped, sun-stroked, California-beach-zombie vibe suggests that she can’t muster the energy to actively push any ideology beyond, God, I’m so high right now. But there’s something refreshingly contrary about her best songs. While other producers borrow from what’s next in the underground, Del Rey revels in a more timeless sound, whether it’s the swirling Italian aria of “Salvatore” or the syrup-screwed “Art Deco,” which perks up her woozy mood with some much-needed hip-hop edge.
Of course, the most contrary thing about Honeymoon is that it’s not really music at all. It’s an Instagram feed in aural form, all sepia-toned nostalgia and melancholy selfies of our tortured heroine lying wasted on the shore or standing blinded by the spotlight. One of the album’s major themes explores what it’s like to be looked at. In “Music To Watch Boys To,” Del Rey imagines listening to her own songs while gawking at pretty young things, and listening to her multi-tracked sighs, it’s hard to tell what turns her on more, listening or looking. The lovely, dirge-y elegy “Terrence Loves You” finds her deconstructing the iconography of a Hollywood legend. Her psychedelic cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” expertly plays with her own image as the doom-pop martyr that critics love to hate.
All of this makes Honeymoon a fun album to think about. The problem is that it’s slightly less fun to listen to. The pace is so relentlessly lethargic that there’s a numbing effect, both musically and emotionally. When one wistful lament bleeds into the next—and the next—it’s hard to appreciate the subtle nuance of an arrangement or the satirical self-awareness of lyrics that find her painting her nails blue to match her mood. Though maybe that’s the point. Honeymoon is an album in the classic sense, a set piece that begs for close listening and confounds anyone searching for a collection of hit singles. It’s stubbornly retro, and clearly that pleases the provocateur in Del Rey. It might be unfashionable to love her. But as any hipster can tell you, sometimes being unfashionable is the most fashionable thing to be.