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Lust for Life

The arc of Lana Del Rey’s art and her nostalgia obsession

As her fifth studio album drops, we trace her stratospheric decade through the lens of her rich, unapologetic cover art

Lana Del Rey’s relationship with nostalgia runs deep. In 2011, the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant gave us “Video Games,” a song rich in sweeping instrumentals that contrasted her delicate voice. Plus, the track was accompanied by a video that worked to establish her as a personification of the past: with winged liner and bouffant hair, she was heralded as the second coming of Nancy Sinatra. And, because nostalgia was still a novelty at the time, LDR’s approach to it still seemed fresh. Her music may have evoked Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, but her video featured fuzzy imagery of Paz De La Huerta (then starring on Boardwalk Empire) being hounded by the paparazzi. If anything, “Video Games” could be construed as a type of commentary: through the lens and sound of the past, even harassment at the hands of media could seem dreamy – even romantic.

Which we soon learned was not the case. After a lacklustre appearance on SNL in January 2012, the Del Rey backlash began and eclipsed any real conversations about the release of Born To Die, her debut LP, released shortly after. But thankfully, that didn’t stop her. This week, Del Rey will drop Lust For Life, her fourth full-length album that features collaborations with The Weeknd and Stevie Nicks, which continues to build on her melancholic interpretation of the past.

But while sixties girl groups and Brenda Lee ballads define a good part of LDR’s sound (when “Summertime Sadness” isn’t being remixed), it’s her approach to visuals that complete her affinity for a narrative defined by nostalgia. Specifically, her approach to album covers – photographed by her sister, Chuck Grant – tell their own story, separate from the one Lana delivers in videos and in interviews.

Born To Die was a blank slate. With Del Rey clad in a white button-up, she stared down the camera and left enough space for us to project our assumptions, which made the backlash easier. Had she buried herself in vintage clothes, she would’ve established herself as a niche artist, one on-par with The Pipettes or The Like, whose music reflected the decade they represented with what they wore. But instead, her aesthetic morphed her into the poster girl for hipster culture gone rogue by embodying what seemed like a give-and-take approach to nostalgia. She wasn’t vintage “enough” – she was too 2012; too flighty, too non-committal. And that was according to critics who commented on her “sexy” image while dismissing her SNL performance as proof of how ready for the big time she wasn’t. Pitchfork rated the album a 5.5 and claimed it was “awkward and out of date.”

So the singer responded accordingly.

Which is what made her sophomore release, Ultraviolence, so interesting. Released in 2014, the album reaffirmed Del Rey’s industry permanence (between 2012 and 2014 she released an EP, a short film, and sang the theme to The Great Gatsby) and also her restraint. Similar to Born To Die, Ultraviolence’s lyrics served to reflect the musical world she created and not the world we all lived in. But its album art seemed like an act of self-preservation. On the cover she stands blocked by the door of an old car while wearing a white t-shirt. But unlike the cover of her debut, there’s a barrier – the car – to keep us at arm’s length. Born To Die and its backlash had made her vulnerable, and she’d learned her lesson.

But there was still a nostalgic element. The black-and-white cover married the worlds of the past and present, but not vividly. Which made sense: In 2014, the masses were bidding adieu to the technicolour found in series like Mad Men and nostalgia was nestled less in romanticising eras in which anyone not white, male, and hetero actively suffered. Instead, it became entrenched in #TBT tributes to childhood, as the nostalgia we shared was defined by our own selective memories. Enter: Honeymoon.

Unlike Ultraviolence (rock-centric, B&W, and much more narratively distant), Honeymoon revived the warmth of Del Rey’s “Video Games” aesthetic. Lounging in a convertible in the California sunshine, the cover sees LDR embody the rise of America: Romanticised. And that year, collections from Tom Ford to Ralph Lauren showcased the good ‘ol days of old school (white and appropriative) Americana, bathing wearers in denim, stripes, and western wear. But that selective nature of America-as-an-aesthetic also ran parallel to the selectiveness Del Rey opted for on her third album cover. Building on Ultraviolence’s self-preservation by hiding behind a car (again), she adds even more blocks by covering her face with a hat and sunglasses.

“Far from the hidden, blocked versions she presented of herself on covers prior, Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life art tells a tale unto itself”

And to that end, Del Rey’s then-brand of nostalgia reflected our own selectivity when thinking about the past. On Ultraviolence we get to see an old car, the bright sun, and half a person – but we don’t get to see her face.

Which is even more interesting when you think about the way Honeymoon was received. Heralded by listeners, Ultraviolence (an album on which she is physically most hidden) was the critical antithesis of Born To Die (the album on which she is the most physically vulnerable). So maybe nostalgia-steeped imagery is only okay in small doses.

Or when the subject reclaims it for herself.

Lust For Life is already serving as a type of reclamation. Far from the hidden, blocked versions she presented of herself on covers prior, Lana Del Rey’s album art tells a tale unto itself. She’s smiling, she’s standing proudly in front of us. Channeling the richness of covers by Nancy Sinatra and Dolly Parton, she unapologetically offers us an escape – similar to the escape she and The Weeknd gave us in “Lust For Life,” the video performed atop the Hollywood sign.

Because a lot has changed since 2012. Lana Del Rey has changed. Her music has changed, as has our approach to it. LDR’s 2011 debut in itself seems nostalgic; a reminder of an era in which we cared way too much about the late-night TV debut of a singer. But our relationship to nostalgia has changed, too. It is now an escape, an invitation, and a reclamation, as artists like Lana use their sounds and imagery to grant us a reprieve from the realities of the world we’re currently living in.

And from the cover of Lust For Life, it seems like Lana Del Rey knows it. And finally, unapologetically herself and nearly a decade spent debated, talked about, and finally embraced, we see the image of a woman who’s smiling because we’re finally ready to stop dissecting her art and to lose ourselves in it.