By Raisa Bruner
September 4, 2019

Lana Del Rey has built her career on being a character: it’s a melange of classic Americana aesthetics, southern California mythology and Old Hollywood ingenue spirit. On her brooding, expansive sixth album, Norman F-cking Rockwell, she digs even further into the image she’s crafted for herself as a tortured creative soul still in thrall to romance. Del Rey has always made sure to seamlessly mix the fictional with the factual; it’s hard to say where her persona begins and ends, as we discovered after her surprise viral hit “Video Games” launched her to stardom in 2011. That enduring mystery — and her tendency to blend historic references with contemporary context — gives her lyrics extra weight as she builds a narrative of nihilistic American stardom, all set to sepia-toned imagery.

Here’s our analysis of every song on Norman F—ing Rockwell, from the tender love ballad “Love song” to her Sublime cover “Doin’ Time” to her ode to her home state “California.”

1. “Norman F—ing Rockwell”

The first strains of “Norman F-cking Rockwell” are pretty strings; it sounds like the beginning of a Golden Age movie, or a ballet overture. Then the piano comes in, warm and unapologetic, with enthusiasm that feels like a Billy Joel tune. And then there’s Del Rey: “Goddamn, man-child,” she lilts. “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.” The title emphatically references the artist and author Rockwell, who was famous for illustrating quotidian scenes of mid-20th-century American life with a political conscience. But Del Rey seems less thrilled about her paramour’s art — although, in typical fashion, she seems to find joy in eviscerating the object of her complaints.

2. “Mariners Apartment Complex”

Released back in September 2018 as an early single, “Mariners Apartment Complex” sees Del Rey go folk. (She’s described the album to Billboard as “a folk record with a little surf twist,” which rings true now that it’s out.) Her breathiness is on full display, as is her confidence; “I ain’t no candle in the wind” suggests she’s not going anywhere. “You lose your way, just take my hand,” she insists. “You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again… I’m your man.” It’s a statement of purpose that sees Del Rey establish herself as much more than the lost ingenue character she previously inhabited in albums like Born to Die and Ultraviolence.

3. “Venice B-tch”

Another early single, “Venice B-tch” is a play on words: this time she’s immersed herself in the hazy 1970s vibe of Venice Beach in Los Angeles. “Ice cream, ice queen, I dream in jeans and leather” — here’s classic Del Rey stringing together evocative nouns (maybe a callback to 2012’s “Blue Jeans”), each one building an impressionistic picture of an artist couple (“You write, I tour, we make it work”) ensconced in their cozy love affair. But there’s a dark side: “You’re beautiful and I’m insane, we’re American made,” she shares, and the song eventually devolves into a muddy, distorted-guitar-and-synth reverie for the rest of its 10-minute run. The psychedelia comes into focus with her bridge, where she repeats “crimson and clover” over and over, the title of a 1968 song from Tommy James and the Shondells.

4. “F-ck it I love you”

Dreamy and languid, “F-ck it I love you” sees Del Rey in full reminiscence mode: “I moved to California but it’s just a state of mind / Turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, that’s not a lie,” she recites in a rapid sing-song. (Del Rey moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2012.) She seems torn between two extremes — “Maybe the way I’m living is killing me… one day I woke up like, ‘Maybe I’ll do it differently'” could potentially be a reference to her history with alcohol: she’s discussed being sent to boarding school at 14 partially to get sober, and subsequently going to rehab. “It’s been nine years since my last drink,” she told GQ back in 2012. “I would drink every day. I would drink alone.” But the song is also about being muddled in love. When she sings “Dream a little dream of me,” it’s both a throwback to the 1931 pop standard tune and a plea for attention.

5. “Doin’ Time”

A whole generation may grow up with Del Rey’s version of “Doin’ Time” as their classic. Her cover of the 1996 Sublime song (which samples Gershwin’s 1930s “Summertime”) is breezy and swinging, turning the track into an atmospheric, bossa-nova-inflected mood. She sticks to the original lyrics, name-checking Sublime singer Bradley Nowell, and drummer Marshall “Ras MG” Goodman, and maintaining the gendered pronouns in the bridge about an “evil” girlfriend. That commitment adds new twists to the otherwise straightforward storytelling of “Doin’ Time,” inserting Del Rey into the song’s layered history.

6. “Love song”

On “Love Song,” Del Rey leans into sincerity. The song is exactly as the title tells it: a tender, intimate love ballad. The only visuals she draws are of a car: “In the backseat, I’m your baby / we go fast, we go so fast we don’t move… so spill my clothes on the floor of your new car.” This isn’t the first time she’s doubled down on auto iconography (“Born to Die,” anyone?) but now there’s a sweetness instead of a recklessness in her attitude. “Is it safe to just be who we are?” she wonders over a minimal piano and strings background. Del Rey has subdued her rebel side in favor of partnership.

7. “Cinnamon Girl”

A slow march of a song, “Cinnamon Girl” details a conflicted relationship. “If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did,” she sings, her voice an angelic falsetto even as she describes emotional devastation. As for the title and first line about “cinnamon in my teeth”? Cinnamon also featured in 2012’s “Radio,” — “Now my life is sweet like cinnamon / like a f-cking dream I’m living in” — suggesting the kind of complex, wild-ride romances she’s know for writing about.

8. “How to disappear”

Slow-burning but with a jazzy kick, “How to disappear” spins a tale of Del Rey’s love for a man — named, in this instance, Joe — that also serves as a commentary on traditional American masculinity. (“Cuts on his face cause he fought too hard… I watched the guys getting high as they fight for the things that they hold dear / to forget the the things they fear,” she observes.) Del Rey envisions a fictional, familial future for herself “I’ve got a kid and two cats in the yard / The California sun and the movie stars…”) with Joe, but the song really contemplates the slippery nature of a relationship she clings to.

9. “California”

“California” doubles down on Del Rey’s fixation on the state (see: her mention of the “Santa Ana,” famously strong winds that whip through California). It also sees her calling in a reference to Joni Mitchell and her 1971 song “California,” which seems to serve as a direct inspiration. In that song, Mitchell sings of traveling around Europe — and “then I’m coming home to California… will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?” In her version, Del Rey has an answer: “If you come back to California, you should just hit me up / we’ll do whatever you want, travel wherever how far.” Mitchell mentions reading Rolling Stone and Vogue magazines; Del Rey promises “I’ll pick up all of your Vogues and all of your Rolling Stones.” It’s a conversation stretched out over the decades, one asking a question about the hospitality of the Golden State, the other answering graciously.

10. “The Next Best American Record”

Once more, Del Rey draws from the history of rock ‘n’ roll. This time it’s Led Zeppelin and their 1973 album Houses of the Holy to start, as well as the band the Eagles in the trap-lite chorus, while she goes on to sing about the process of trying to write the “next best American record” with her lover. “He was cool as heck,” she insists twice in the first verse — high praise from Del Rey. “The Next Best American Record” has some of the most straightforward pop production on the album, particularly in her catchy chorus. But her melancholy lyricism remains, making this a sequel of sorts to previous hit “Summertime Sadness” in its mixed emotions.

11. “The greatest”

One of the most directly nostalgic of Del Rey’s songs on Norman F—ing Rockwell, “The greatest” sees her looking back on recent history — both musical and political — as she bemoans the present. There’s a nod to Dennis Wilson, ill-fated drummer for the Beach Boys, and the paradise island of “Kokomo.” There’s a line about missing New York and its music scene, where she started, and the rock ‘n’ roll of an earlier era. There’s a mention of a 2018 missile scare in Hawaii, of changing weather in L.A., of Kanye West’s evolution from rapper to lightning rod of controversy, of the dire straits of the planet (“‘Life on Mars‘ ain’t just a song”). And then there’s her most millennial line yet: “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball / I guess that I’m burned out after all.” Her play on words turns the phrase on its head, skewering the youthful slang term “lit” and leaning into the nihilistic burnout instead.

12. “Bartender”

On “Bartender,” Del Rey kicks things off with a likely second Joni Mitchell reference: Mitchell’s 1970 album was called Ladies of the Canyon, itself a reference to women who live in L.A.’s famously creative Laurel Canyon area. Del Rey also name-checks Crosby, Stills and Nash, adding them to her long list of famous musicians she’s included in her music. Then there’s “Sometimes, girls just want to have fun” — which sounds a lot like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” from Cyndi Lauper. And “the poetry inside of me is warm like a gun” feels like a call-out to the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” All of these mentions weave together to form an idealized vision of her L.A., filled with ladies meditating in gardens and her incognito drives down the Pacific Coast Highway in a truck to see a bartender (“photo-free exits from baby’s bedside”) — although, as she notes, she’s only drinking Cherry Coke. (Recall that Del Rey has discussed her sobriety before.) “Bartender” deftly mixes the mythology of L.A.’s past with its present, positioning Del Rey’s struggle to keep love alive in the midst of contemporary fame as one more chapter in the story of Laurel Canyon artistry.

13. “Happiness is a butterfly”

“If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst / That could happen to a girl who’s already hurt? I’m already hurt,” Del Rey muses darkly on “Happiness is a butterfly.” It’s a powerfully sad line: a suggestion that she’s already hit rock bottom. In its title construction, “Happiness is a butterfly” echoes the Beatles’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and this song is equally morose, melodic and surprising. Del Rey alludes to a relationship in flux: “Do you want me or do you not?” she wonders, name-checking Hollywood and Vine and “Laurel down to Sunset” — all L.A. streets — as she outlines the drama of their crumbling affair, her energy ramping up into a chorus that also works as an admonishment: “I said, don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi!” In the end, Del Rey seems to say, love is fleeting and — like a butterfly — hard to capture; might as well take what she can get.

14. “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it”

The album closer’s dirge-like, spare intimacy make it one of her most loaded songs on the album; producer Jack Antonoff shared that it was recorded on the first day they worked together, and it retains that immediacy. Over just a piano, Del Rey sings in lyrics that are oblique but specific, each noun a weighted term. First, there’s Slim Aarons, the famously chic mid-20th century American photographer of poolside scenes, whose aesthetic has become a mainstay of Instagram style. (Del Rey seems to feel that she’s not quite the model.) Then there’s Sylvia Path, feminist poet and author of The Bell Jar, who later committed suicide; Del Rey calls herself a “24/7 Sylvia Plath,” out on the town in a nightgown and “writing in blood on my walls” — a bold visual of the tortured artist experience. She calls out time spent with “Bowery Bums,” a name for residents of New York’s skid row, who gave her the “only love I’ve ever known.” But all this darkness is balanced out by the song’s titular suggestion, which takes itself from a Morgan Freeman quote in The Shawshank Redemption. Del Rey may be no stranger to struggles, but she maintains hope.

Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com.

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