Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don't believe the you-know-what

hype - verb, hyped, hyp·ing, noun
1. to stimulate, excite, or agitate (usually followed by 'up' ): She was hyped up at the thought of owning her own car. 2. to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods; promote or publicize showily: a promoter who knows how to hype a prizefight. 3. to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc. 4. to trick; gull.

Purchasing a car is, after property and a pint of Guinness in Paris, the third most expensive investment you are probably ever likely to make. We humble consumers can therefore be grateful for the conscientious zeal with which motoring journalists evaluate new cars on our behalf.

Here's how it works: a nervous-looking flunky turns up at the journalist's house with a low-loader bearing a shiny, new and staggeringly expensive car. The journalist then thrashes the car around Cumbria for a week before returning it, ideally intact, to the now ashen-faced flunky. Sometime in the weeks that follow you will read 2500 words of carefully considered copy that may - or may not - influence your decision to part with your hard-earned (and, let's face it, who hasn't been poised to write out a cheque for a Lamborghini Aventador only to read in What Car? that its iPod jack is inconveniently located and that would present daily annoyance during the school run? Well, exactly).

I would hardly place Lana Del Rey's Born To Die in the same category of outlay as the ludicrous but stunning Aventador, but if you're going to succumb to History's Most Hyped Album, you may as well know what you're in for. Buying music on spec can be a fraught affair. Pity the Sting fan who owns everything since The Police's Fall Out and still rushed out to buy Songs From The Labrynth only to discover it features the tantric one doing German baroque. Because he's Sting.

Unlike motoring journalism, the march of digital progress has changed the way music reviewers do their job. In a recent blog post, The Word's David Hepworth noted how record company fears about advanced digital copies of albums being leaked onto the Internet makes it commonplace these days for music hacks to be summoned to a 'playback' session. Held in venues resembling Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray, any form of recording device - not to mention shoelaces, belts and ties - are removed from the journalist, who is then given a priviledged spin or two of the anointed new album. Just last weekend, journalists were in Paris for a closed-door playback of Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball.

There is another key test to a new album - how it fairs against The Law of Diminishing Listens. This principle is first encountered as a teenager: you buy the new Echo and The Bunnymen single on the day of its release and play it incessantly for the next 48 hours. By Days 3 to 5, plays have scaled down to two or three per day, dropping further to a single spin as you enter the second week of ownership. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the makings of a record collection which will eventually become the topic of a domestic argument.

So what about Born To Die, which I have now managed to avoid passing judgement on for the better part of a month? Does it stack up to the expectation and hype, the Brit award Del Rey won last night, the handbag Mulberry have named after her and the frankly baffling namecheck by David Cameron (who apparently "digs" the singer)?

Because with Del Rey comes a degree of suspicion. Just what is it about her arrival from nowhere (so it seems) that has had the entire music industry fawning over this doe-eyed and pouty 25-year-old from upstate New York, apart from her obvious photogenic qualities.

To some extent, and to her credit, Del Rey's rapid ascendancy, has a lot to do with her own endeavour. With fewer record companies to promote fewer acts because there's less money to make from selling fewer records, today you've got to do it yourself to get rich and famous, which is what Del Rey did. At the beginning of 2011, she was plain old Elizabeth Grant from Lake Placid, NY, with a sunk-without-a-trace debut album Lana Del Ray - A.K.A. Lizzie Grant, already gone and forgotten. Determined, Grant went back to her bedroom, and started messing about with the six or seven chords she says she knows, changed a vowel and became Lana Del Rey.

Midway through the year she released the song Video Games online and, with the help of a grainy self-made video, it went 'viral'. Now, of all the wild wackiness associated with the web, I'm least comfortable with the idea of anything 'going viral'. In my mind - that clutter of ephemera resembling Steptoe & Son's living room - going viral suggests a need for antibiotics, taking two days off work and drinking lots of Lucozade. Apparently, however, going viral is the crown of accomplishment in the virtual community.

Video Games - a polemic about a boyfriend who paid more attention to his Xbox than his better half - was one of two viral events of note in 2011. The other is the YouTube hit of a suburban Englishman losing it while attempting to bring his dog, Fenton, to heal in London's Richmond Park. Though little was initially known of the gentleman in question, comparisons have been subsequently made to Basil Fawlty memorably taking to his Morris 1100 with a tree branch in Fawlty Towers ("Right! I'm going to give you a damned good thrashing!!"), and it was therefore safely assumed that Fenton's owner was sired from the same solid block of English middle classness. Assumptions proved to be correct. After all, who else would call their dog Fenton?

OK, so no more procrastination - back to Lana and Born To Die. Is it any good? Yes, I suppose. But it's nowhere near the knock-your-socks-off breakthrough the hype created expectations of. Now I don't want to give the impression that it's a disappointment, because it's not. But with Del Rey branding herself the "gangsta Nancy Sinatra", you would have expected something a little more diverse. Not that it is bad. It just lacks true variety.

Tonally, Born To Die doesn't veer too far from being a noirish David Lynch soundtrack, positively soaked in reverb, big soundstages and the odd twanging bottom E string, reflecting, perhaps, smalltown normality with a Twin Peaks hint of something not right beneath. Del Rey herself adopts one of two vocal personas, either the smokey, low-register of the title track and the eerily aged voice of Video Games, or the squeaky, Britney-esque baby doll of This Is What Makes Us Girls.

Del Rey is certainly comfortable with the theatrical, such as Off To The Races, in which she adopts the skin of a double-crossing gangster's moll. Elsewhere she portrays herself as a somewhat knowing femme fatale, as if acting out the full Laura Palmer backstory (with a pinch of Audrey Horne thrown in for good measure). Carmen takes this bad girl theme further with a vignette of a 17-year-old Coney Island tease with a booze problem.

Diet Mountain Dew is one of the few attempts to take the tempo of Born To Die up to something that moves one's toe in a tapping motion; but for the rest there is a lot of big-haired, cinematic grandeur, awash with strings and cavernous echo like Summertime Sadness and its somewhat dour tale of relationship collapse. Much like Adele, you hope that Del Rey won't return to her failed romance on her next album. As cathartic as this well-trodden route might be (Phil Collins arguably fuelled his entire solo career on the demise of his three marriages), it can grate after a while.

Like any good pop record Born To Die grows with each listen, revealing additional layers every time. And that's a good thing. It's not an instant classic, despite that the hype might have suggested it was. I've never been one to be told who to like: I've probably come to bands long after their period of media adulation has faded and they're already on the chicken-and-chips-in-a-basket revival circuit. But with Lana Del Rey, for once, I think the cognoscenti is on to something...but it's not there yet.

It may not be obvious, and it may need that difficult second (OK, third) album to bring it out, but in a market where Adele has all but stamped her ownership on the Best Female category, Del Rey needs to work more at her craft - learn a few more chords, another key and maybe different time signatures. And then we'll have a very interesting rivalry on our hands: two torch singers - one from Tottenham, the other from rural New York State.

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