Category Archives: Music

Lou Reed – Berlin

Berlin

Lou ReedBerlin RCA APL1-0207 (1973)


Continuing Lou Reed’s constant effort to describe struggles for transcendence, he delivers a very average album here. Quite universally panned by critics on release, most have since corrected their underestimation of Berlin, some going too far in the other direction to call this some kind of masterpiece. It’s not his best work, but it’s not his worst either.

Combining brash decadence with bleak misery, Reed crafts an unlikely album. On the surface is over-the-top arena rock and maudlin prog rock. Fueling the fire are Reed’s brilliant songs. Coming off the surprise success of Transformer (an excellent but misunderstood album) Lou Reed had the support to assemble quite a studio band including Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, and the Brecker brothers.

Berlin tells an ongoing story. It is a concept album. The storyline is very easy to follow.  Caroline is the main character. Out of the depths of Berlin nightlife (“Berlin” is Reed’s Barbara Streisand song) she falls in love with Jim. “Men of Good Fortune” contemplates the possibilities of the rich and the poor. Reed finds the glory in both without passing judgment. “How Do You Think It Feels” blasts an indignant reply to the first part of the album. After the odd novelty wears off, Caroline and Jim’s relationship burns out. Jim abuses Caroline and leaves her with the children. In her desperate struggle to cope, she sinks deep into a world of drugs (notably amphetamines). The state takes her children, “The Kids,” as society mocks her existence. Reed fades to Caroline’s suicide on ”The Bed.” “Sad Song” is the climax. Jim never fully grasped the situation. Was Caroline’s life for nothing?

The most singularly amazing aspect of Berlin is how Lou Reed turns unreleased Velvet Underground songs (at least, unreleased on proper studio albums) into the bulk of this entirely new story. “Stephanie Says” (a great Velvet Underground song, likely never released because of John Cale’s abrupt severance from the group) became “Caroline Says II.” “Oh, Gin” formed a good part of “Oh, Jim.” It takes remarkable skill to re-work these songs into an ongoing storyline.

These songs stand alone well, but make something more in the context of the ongoing story. I like to think Berlin turned out exactly as Reed planned, but critics wanted nothing of Reed’s designs. The production does seem out of place, exactly as the characters do. Rather than a hindrance, incorporating songwriting, production, and all aspects of the album into it’s story is remarkable. Few dare like Lou Reed.

This album broke Reed free from his glam-rock period. He now stood alone as the solo artist he always wanted to be. He was not understood yet, but the beauty of Lou Reed is his persistence. His attitude has ruined many possibly great works but it also helped plow ahead with something like this.  This record reveals subtle beauty masked with blunt rock and roll. It does find success more than seems apparent at first.  But it still sounds kind of shitty in many ways.

[For what it’s worth, Berlin: Live at St Ann’s Warehouse is slightly better, mostly because it ends with three songs not from Berlin.]

Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

If You're Feeling Sinister

Belle and SebastianIf You’re Feeling Sinister Jeepster JPRCD001 (1996)


If You’re Feeling Sinister is one of the best expressions of the vacuity of the post-political late 1990s, after the so-called “end of history”.  In the UK, the rising “third way” new labour politicians like Tony Blair (and the Democratic Leadership Council new democrat Bill Clinton in the United States) concealed a rightward shift behind benign-sounding “triangulation”-type rhetoric.  Rather than a pendulum swinging back leftward after the brutal Carter-Thatcher-Reagan-Major era, there was an impotent shrug of “there is no alternative” (TINA) and a continuation of the swing rightward.  So somebody like the girl in the album’s austere cover photo, with a copy of Kafka‘s The Trial conspicuously visible in the background, is left isolated and powerless, in contemplation.  The sort of education and erudition implied by the book in the background of the album cover was no substitute for the lack of political power of the album’s core “college rock” audiences (the would-be new “new left” of the day).  This feeling is captured well by Belle and Sebastian’s light, melodic, and sometimes whimsical chamber pop music.  Stuart Murdoch sings with sensitivity but above all a wispy, unobtrusive breathiness.  The music relies on a tension between the upbeat, nearly campy melodies and the literate, melancholic lyricism.  This music is the soundtrack to the strongest revolution possible without getting out of bed.

Mostly the album uses folky acoustic instrumentation layered and elaborated upon with studio overdubs and subtle echo that draws from modern pop.  That is to say from The Velvet Underground (in the vein of “Sunday Morning,” etc.), to British folk-rock of the 1970s to jangle pop of the 1980s and on to shoegaze rock of the 1990s all contribute influence.  (Alt/grunge rock and britpop of the early-to-mid 90s is conspicuously absent).  It all contributes to a kind of soft yet connected sonic fabric buoyed by odd drum figures, solitary horn accompaniment, unexpected electric bass lines, and celeste-like keyboards.  It all seems fit together.  The little subtle touches of eccentric instrumentation — never overused — each cycle through to diversify the proceedings, as if any instrument is capable of filling any role.

Some of the songs are simply lovely and pretty, like the piano ballad “Fox in the Snow” (a re-write of “We Rule the School”).  The lonely tranquility and search for escape through fey artistic pursuit recalls Denton Welch‘s unfinished autobiographical novel A Voice Through a Cloud.  Just like that book, there is quality of observing surrounding life, as if through a telescope.

“Stars of Track and Field” evidences a deadpan sarcasm — worthy of a Naked Gun film — that surfaces repeatedly throughout the rest of the album.  The sarcasms allows the angst underlying the songs to come through in a passive-aggressive way.

“Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” is probably the centerpiece of the album.  The subtle appeal to rescue from unseen outside forces, the casual and polite cynicism, the somewhat smug obscurantism, the passive-aggressive hesitation to make offense:  these are all the tools in the kit of “outsider” hipsters of the era.  These are much the same techniques found in other indie “twee” pop like Neutral Milk Hotel‘s cult favorite In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a few years later.  And yet, Belle and Sebastian do something subtly different from Neutral Milk Hotel.  “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” has the lines, “Nobody writes them like they used to / so it may as well be me.”  This may be music that self-consciously (and even melodramatically) emphasizes its distance from the “real world” by building up its own private one, but at the same time it underscores doing something, however inchoate, apart from (and often against) those other worlds.  So, rather than just being song about a “Romantic tragic hero, narcissistically focused on his own suffering and despair, elevating them to a source of pleasure,” these are songs that establish a larger context of political paralysis and meager responses.  There is an emphasis on retaining sensitivity (the lyric: “I always cry at endings”), but also an emphasis on combining that with persistent awareness and action.  Available avenues for action were limited at the time, and so naturally this music looks back to the past a bit, and appears quite tentative.  While combining reverent/irreverent mash-ups of ironic camp and cutting insights is kind of an old tactic (at the time, most popularly employed by Beck), Belle and Sebastian’s use of the technique was so light as to almost pass by unnoticed.  The cynicism almost gets the best of the band sometimes, with their tendency to play “the jaded, hysterical sniveller” holding them back rather than moving them forward as intended — this is evident by the way later work like The Life Pursuit is able to be more decisive and less self-pitying.  This all boils down to the band firmly encouraging and arousing a constituency (audience) to recognize its peculiar strengths, but beyond that taking only the smallest of steps here towards deploying those strengths as a political force.  The smallness of the steps is measured against what seemed possible.

If You’re Feeling Sinister is an album full of good intentions.  It even manages to win over some listeners not usually into this sort of thing.

Johnny Cash & June Carter – Carryin’ On

Carryin' On

Johnny Cash & June CarterCarryin’ On Columbia CS 9528 (1967)


Well, this one is quite a trip.  It’s a nice set of generally upbeat songs from the duo of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who would get married the following year.  In spite of a few songs that don’t quite work (like the Ray Charles songs and the dumb “Shantytown”), this manages to be more than the sum of its parts.  Rather than going for the kind of substance of Cash’s concept albums this is just a bunch of random, fun music.  It maintains a great energy throughout, and there is some fine guitar and piano playing to boot.  This is the kind of album that plays well in mixed company.  [Note: “It Ain’t Me, Babe” seems to be a duplicate of what was on Cash’s Orange Blossom Special].

Johnny Cash – Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series

Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series

Johnny CashClassic Cash: Hall of Fame Series Mercury Nashville 834 526-2 (1988)


These are re-recordings of his classic hits — Cash had pulled a similar stunt with I Walk the Line when he went to Columbia.  Avoid this in favor of the original recordings.  I will say this was the album that turned me on to Johnny Cash for the first time.  In retrospect, how that happened, I have no idea.  The songs are still great; maybe nothing can genuinely tarnish them.  This takes a big hit simply for the album concept being misleading, even though the performances are very middling.

Prince and The Revolution – Parade

Parade

Prince and The RevolutionParade Paisley Park 9 25395-1 (1986)


Lots of excellent commentary has already been written about Parade, the soundtrack to a second film starring Prince, Under the Cherry Moon.  The film is terrible in case you are wondering.  The soundtrack came along after Prince’s big breakthrough with Purple Rain.  He followed that big success with the cathartic (in a self-indulgent way) neo-psychedelic meanderings of Around the World in a Day.  Parade was a more concerted effort.  And Prince goes big most of the time, with grandiose production concepts mixing together contributions from large sets of musicians.  Yet, as my friend Patrick said, “it’s at once too much and not enough.”  He piles on the production gimmicks just because he can, and well into the album those efforts hardly ever seem to come to fruition.  Side one is all over the place, dragged down by the incongruous marriage of lightweight compositions and jarring recording experiments.  It doesn’t offer much except for “Girls & Boys,” and the somewhat mediocre “Under the Cherry Moon.”  But side two turns things around completely.  There is the big hit “Kiss,” which remains one of Prince’s best.  But “Kiss” is part of the great closing sequence of “Kiss” (an insanely infectious and tight dance funk jam), “Anotherloverholenyohead” (a loose yet funky workout) and “Sometimes It Snows in April” (a slow-burning epic ballad).  The second side is Prince in his prime and that more than makes up for the meanderings of the first.  And the great news is that Prince turned around and took all the best parts and added even more great songs and ideas for his next effort, the magnificent Sign ‘O the Times.

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)


The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by rejecting the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never will garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right of liberalism see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.  It is to the credit of the editors that they leave these things in the book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements long these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  Yet implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

Lana Del Rey – Paradise

Paradise

Lana Del ReyParadise Interscope B0017667-02 (2012)


The Paradise EP, released following Del Rey’s breakthrough album Born to Die (and appended as bonus tracks to it on reissues), eschews the trashy dance pop that padded put most of the debut and instead dabbles in romanticized pop with dramatic vocals akin to Jeff Buckley‘s cult classic Grace.  (If that seems like an odd comparison, know that Del Rey has expressed admiration for Buckley and one of the songs here shares the name of his former band).  But Del Rey is also following the Madonna playbook.  Just like Madonna’s second album, Like A Virgin, took the most scandalous elements of her music (as judged by mainstream tastes) and ran with them, Del Rey similarly tries to capitalize on the sensational.  Lyrically, Paradise dwells on the ribald and lascivious.  It is an awkward approach, leaning too hard on shock value.  Throughout, there is a lot of emphasis on traveling and getting away — just the sorts of Americana mythology that has driven so many other musical recordings.  She is clearly trying to make music with some amount of substance.  But she only partly succeeds.  Best tracks: “Gods and Monsters” and “Body Electric.”

The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

The mithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

Various ArtistsThe Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz Smithsonian A5 19477 (1997)


A fantastic overview of jazz from its birth through the early 1960s .  There is probably no better introduction to the genre than this set (this remastered CD version tracks the “revised” edition that came out in 1987).  Granted, at only five CDs (the original, unrevised edition was 6 LPs), it can still only briefly touch on many major periods, and so, for instance, things cut out at the appearance of “free jazz” and only a handful of tracks are from later than 1962.  But there is not a single track on here that is less than fantastic.  Probably one of the best box sets ever assembled, right up there alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  As authoritative as a good dictionary.

Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

American III: Solitary Man

Johnny CashAmerican III: Solitary Man American Recordings CK 69691 (2000)


Gets really good in the second half.  The first half reveals a bit of pandering in selecting songs by popular rock acts, and Cash’s voice starts to show signs of frailty that doesn’t really suit some of the songs.  Still a great listen in spite of all that.  Probably the second best of the American Recordings series.  If I had just one wish here, it would be that Cash had done a new version of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” (which he previously recorded on Rainbow) with just his voice and an organ/electric piano — the imagined version playing in my head is amazing.

Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon

Honeymoon

Lana Del ReyHoneymoon Interscope B0023750-02 (2015)


Calling Honeymoon “bubblegum nihilism” hits pretty close to the mark.  It calls up a dark, dispirited mood — not far off from old, melodramatic movies like Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? or twisted latter-day recreations from the likes of David Lynch — set against sparse electronic beats dressed with occasional strings and chamber pop instrumentation.  Del Rey’s vocal tone, timbre and range are not especially memorable, and the lyrics are so often raw.  But those qualities actually suit the music.  The tempos are all slow, much slower than the songs seem to call for.  The backing as a whole drifts off, a kind of indistinct mass of the vaguely familiar.  Her vocals pierce through the music, but in a disinterested way.  She conveys a kind of apathetic disgust with everything around her, especially when her surroundings are at their most glamorous.  The quality of stepping back from it all is perhaps the most admirable one she advances.  There is also hedonism and a kind of electronic new ageism lurking behind much of this.  Yet aside from that there is also a clear admiration for certain refined strands of bohemian culture.

“Freak” is one of the best songs.  A slow recurring guitar riff recalls a film noir rather than goth/rockabilly version of The Birthday Party‘s “Say a Spell” (from Mutiny!).  Playing a guitar chord that way turns the harmonic elements into melodic ones as each note stands almost alone.

“The Blackest Day” is another good one.  It characterizes the lyrical approach of the album, with emphasis on cataloging surrounding artifacts and discrete, quantifiable experiences to allow Del Rey to convey melodramatic feeling in her vocals.  Thematically, this and other songs still fit what one critic called Del Rey’s penchant for “exploring the internal worlds of numbed female characters posing as arm candy[.]”  Though on Honeymoon that is toned down a bit, and more generalized.

The single “High on the Beach” probably epitomizes the entire album’s sound the best.  There is a deadpan melancholy that just seeks to withdraw.  It practically suggests going catatonic, in a trendy and visible way.  Del Rey sings with a breathiness that seems slightly disaffected — a comparison to “Cat Power-does-Chris Isaak” is fair (as is calling herself a “gangster” Nancy Sinatra, for that matter).  She seems to do that not to appear as a stereotypical weak and submissive woman but rather more like the way punk singers sang off key on purpose.  The lyrics refer to independence and self-sufficiency, though without much in the way of specifics.  Her vocal phrasing is informed by what is old and classy, but her vocals are juxtaposed against what is current and disreputable.  This conveys a sense of power to handle, in whatever limited way, those disparate, incongruous elements, against the odds.  It is an approach employed in similar ways in photographer Robert Mapplethorpe‘s works that mashed up art deco with gay subculture.

In terms of purely musical technique, she seems to draw some obvious inspiration from singers before her.  The closer, a cover of Nina Simone‘s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” positions itself somewhere in the realm of Simone’s occasional forays into twisted, orchestrated rock like the title track from I Put a Spell on You.  It also orients the listener, placing Del Rey in her desired continuum of pop music history.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in the backing instrumentals.  All the songs adhere to the structure of conventional pop songs.  Even the specifics seem familiar.  Take “Religion,” a poppier echo of The Raveonettes‘ hazy, beat-heavy retro rock.

But, frankly, the gloomy noir elements elsewhere, like on the title track, vaguely recall a (much) more mainstream/commercially palatable “Hollywood sadcore” take on the style of Lydia Lunch‘s Queen of Siam (“Gloomy Sunday,” “Spooky,” “Knives in the Drain,” “Lady Scarface,” “A Cruise to the Moon,” etc.), with electronic dance/hip-hop beats and filmic orchestration in place of no-wave punk rock and cabaret jazz.  And Del Rey has that bubblegum aspect that Lydia Lunch has, well, none of, just as Del Rey has none of Lunch’s menacing sarcasm.  Honeymoon‘s dark electronics with dramatic singing is also close to, say, Carla Bozulich without the pretension and more emphasis on camp, or even a more dejected and straightforward version of some of David Sylvian‘s (ex-Japan) art pop.

So is Del Rey just appropriating and co-opting elements of creative and independent music of prior decades, like a cultural pirate, or is she turning mainstream culture against itself, like a “culture jammer”?  Is it even possible to introduce elements of underground music into mainstream commercial culture without betraying those building blocks?  Is she a feminist or just an individualist?  Is her sincerity merely being sensationalized by the media industry for mass consumption, or is is her public image entirely just a fake persona?  Is she really just a full-bore part of the establishment media, and not really a critic of it at all?  These are central questions an album like Honeymoon presents.

Of course, it is obligatory to mention the highly stylized persona that Del Rey has used to put across her music.  This persona — part femme fatale ingénue, part stoner washout, part vulnerable introvert, part insecure hipster, part deluded mallrat, and part ambitious artiste — is an odd thing.  She broke into international recognition largely through an online music video that she directed, edited and partly filmed herself.  Whatever one thinks about her persona, good or bad (or some of both), it is one she largely crafted herself.  It is wrong to castigate her for creating a persona in the first place.  Even the painter Georgia O’Keefe can be said to have done the same in becoming an artistic celebrity.  Every personality, public or private, is to a degree a mask over the void of being.  Such masks allow for and mediate a social conception of the self.  To the extent that Del Rey puts forward a musical vision in which every person is worthy of consideration, even one as flawed as her persona, maybe that is a good thing.  There also is a curious aspect of this persona that suggests ordinary people can follow suit in order to take charge of their own lives in some way, at least by taking responsibility for establishing their own desires and giving no ground to acting in conformity with those desires.  In this way it might even be said she is merely trying “to be just extreme enough to be an ‘effective extremist.'”  In any event it is a far cry from the stance of “mogul” pop.

This album is not entirely successful.  The cynicism of Honeymoon ties it to precisely that which it claims to break away from.  Is her position against and outside those things — like Céline Dion’s music but for younger, hipper audiences — just a coping mechanism under late capitalism, and therefore a reinforcement of it?  And yet, the pleas to be a “freak like me” and Del Rey’s rejection of some typical major label promotional activities (combined with a continuation of others) do suggest an ambiguous relationship with mainstream success.  It is an old dilemma.  While she has already stepped back, musically, from the element of “having it both ways” (as a victimized yet manipulative femme fatale) evident in her breakthrough hit “Video Games,” Del Rey will have to go further to really be a countercultural force that undermines — or at least minimally overcomes — the media industry from the inside (what the somewhat similarly mall/Hollywood-inspired filmmaker Michel Gondry has largely failed to do since his early music videos gained him notoriety).  That especially goes for her music videos.  But Honeymoon shows that she might well have both the inclination and talent to do so.  This certainly stands above what she has done before at album length.  The best songs are the best generally because they introduce a larger stylistic gap between the vocals and the backing, forging ahead in spite of that gap, while the lesser songs tend to come across more like straight genre exercises.  There are not any obvious missteps — though the T.S. Eliot recitation “Burnt Norton (Interlude)” is jarring, and some of this just treads water (“24”).  And there is much less reliance on guilty pleasure trash pop than on her breakthrough Born to Die.  The best songs (“High on the Beach,” “Freak,” “Honeymoon,” “The Blackest Day,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) are really quite good, maybe even great.  But the album could have used a few more great songs to be a great album as such.  As it stands, Honeymoon still suffers somewhat from the problem of being a really good EP padded out to album length.  Still, even just looking at the singles from the album, it is certainly an achievement to place music this depressing into the pop charts at all, which hasn’t happened much since the “grunge rock” era.  On the whole, this might just be a personal turning point when the price of fame has sunk in enough for Del Rey to feel the sting, but also while she still holds enough widespread appeal to become a sort of anti-hero for a disaffected age.  Or not.