Lana Del Rey’s Paradise EP was released in November 2012, on CD in Australia and Germany; as CD or digital download in the US; and on vinyl worldwide. For most music buyers, though, it’s simply the second disc in ‘The Paradise Edition’; a reissue of Born to Die, first released in January 2012.
The cover shows Lana in a white bathing suit, with a pool and palm trees behind her. It was shot by Nicole Nodland during filming of the video for ‘Blue Jeans’, the third single from Born to Die. Rodland also photographed the original album cover. As with Born to Die, Lana gazes ahead – but she is looking directly at the camera, and her expression is more defiant than dreamy. The lettering is also of similar style, but in gaudy gold, not snowy white.
‘Ride’, the lead single, also opens Paradise. It was written with Justin Parker, with whom Del Rey first collaborated on her award-winning breakthrough single, ‘Video Games.’ The producer is Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam, who helmed Johnny Cash’s 1994 comeback album, American Recordings. ‘Ride’ begins with a wordless, hummed melody that will recur throughout. It has the feel of a siren’s call, or the stand-alone openings of classic girl group hits like the Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack’.
‘I’ve been out on that open road,’ Lana begins. And while Born to Die’s milieu was small-town America, Paradise enters dangerous territory. Here, she is an outsider: ‘I hear the birds in the summer breeze/I drive fast, I am alone at midnight/Been trying hard not to get into trouble,’ she confesses, ‘but I got a war in my mind.’ Hers is a journey into a man’s world: ‘You can be my full-time daddy,’ she promises an unnamed companion. Her first role model was male: ‘That’s the way my father made his life an art.’ But loneliness and desperation are never far away. ‘I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy,’ Lana admits. ‘I’m tired of driving ‘til I see stars in my eyes.’ Her solution is always the same: ‘I just ride, just ride…’
A ten-minute film, directed by Anthony Mandler, accompanies the song. ‘Ride’ was filmed in Las Vegas, Nevada (the desert state that also provided an alternate title for Lana’s 2010 debut album, which was later withdrawn from sale.) Ride begins with a monologue, set against Dan Heath’s string instrumental and footage of Lana suspended from a tyre swing, without visible support. ‘I was in the winter of my life,’ Lana begins, ‘and the men I met along the road were my only summer.’ When she admits, ‘I was a singer, not a very popular one,’ she seems to be alluding to her earlier, pre-Lana incarnations as May Jailer or plain Lizzy Grant. In retrospect, she believes that ‘it takes getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is.’
‘When the people I used to know found out what I had been doing, how I had been living- they asked me why,’ Lana reveals, perhaps referring to her own ‘colourful past.’ ‘But there’s no use in talking to people who have a home,’ she reflects, ‘they have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lie your head.’
‘I was always an unusual girl,’ she explains, adding ‘I was born to be the other woman.’
The song itself starts with Lana performing onstage. As she sings ‘Don’t break me down,’ the action cuts to an overweight biker leaning over her as she lies atop a pinball machine. Another older man – possibly Indian – takes her to his motel. Later still, she approaches another man and gets in his car. Her character is seemingly drifting into promiscuity, or prostitution. This aspect of the story has proved controversial, as it is depicted without judgement and her attitude towards life is constantly in flux.
The next segment sees Lana being picked up by a gang of bikers, including a woman, and the fat man shown before. They drive to the desert, where Lana drapes herself in an American flag. Later they dance around a bonfire, with Lana wearing an Indian headdress. Some critics have cited this as a form of cultural appropriation. However, the Indian theme – first broached at the motel – seems to expose her character as a self-proclaimed ‘chameleon soul’ with no fixed identity. This gathering of outcasts is also ritualistic, and supremely ambivalent – veering between ecstatic dance and nihilistic gunplay.
‘I believe in the country America used to be,’ Lana muses, as the song ends and the monologue resumes. ‘I believe in the kindness of strangers,’ she elaborates, paraphrasing Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine, Blanche Dubois, in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the final frame, she declares ‘I am fucking crazy. But I am free.’
‘American’ has the warm, lilting melody and soft-focus production of ‘Radio’ and other songs from Born to Die, interpolated with a gliding guitar riff. Lyrically, it takes the form of a dialogue, perhaps with a lover. Lana names some of her musical influences (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley); and with gentle irony, invites the listener to ‘Be young, be dope, be proud/Like an American’. As with most of Paradise, ‘American’ is produced by Rick Nowels and Emile Haynie, both major collaborators on Born to Die.
‘My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola/My eyes are wide like cherry pies’, begins the third track, ‘Cola.’ Lana seems to be mocking her own vampy image, and the two-dimensional way she has sometimes been perceived. Once again, she is the Other Woman, cooing, ‘I know your wife and she wouldn’t mind.’ But the mournful violin betrays her melancholy soul.
‘Body Electric’ takes its title from Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. Whitman was a 19th century American writer, whose themes included nature and freedom. ‘Body Electric’ was published in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. He is also one of the American folk heroes, drawn from pop culture and high art, hereby named by Lana, who defines herself as an artist through iconography: ‘Elvis is my daddy/Marilyn’s my mother…’ The elegiac mood is heightened by the ominous sound of church bells, first heard in Lana’s breakthrough hit, ‘Video Games’. Alongside the images of a fallen America is another form of mythology: ‘Mary prays the rosary for my broken mind.’
Composed in 1950 by Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris, ‘Blue Velvet’ has been recorded by a wide range of artists, from Tony Bennett to Brenda Lee. The most famous version, a hit for Bobby Vinton in 1963, inspired David Lynch’s cult 1986 film of the same name. As Lana’s aesthetic has often been described as Lynchian, her own cover was somehow inevitable. ‘Blue Velvet’ was commissioned by fashion chain H&M, to promote Lana’s clothing range for autumn 2012, and released as a digital download. Produced by Emile Haynie, the song was recorded in London, where Lana was accompanied by the Larry Gold Orchestra. She begins by humming the melody, as if acknowledging its familiarity.
The video for ‘Blue Velvet’ was directed by Johan Renck, whose previous credits include Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’. Lana plays a lounge singer, wearing some of her H&M designs – a pink mohair sweater and leggings, which seem rosier than her own pallid skin. Her hair is in a beehive, and she resembles Priscilla Presley. Three girls, dressed exactly like Lana, watch listlessly. However, her rapt audience seem to have stepped back even further in time to a rather solemn 1940s dinner party. A lonely sailor sits on a bed, peeling boundless petals from a daisy; two wartime lovers kiss while Lana sings down the line in a phone booth. In one brief scene, Lana joins a hypnotist on a couch, and he dangles a fob watch before her eyes. But she is too absorbed in her song to fall under his spell. Finally, the diminutive actor Michael J. Anderson – whom fans of Lynch will recognise as The Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks – walks into the saloon, and pulls the plug on Lana’s microphone. After he leaves, the music starts again. Lana smiles wanly, and resumes her performance.
After this sweetly nostalgic interlude, the mood once again darkens. ‘Gods and Monsters’ conjures a nightmare world of biblical proportions (‘In the land of gods and monsters I was an angel/Living in the garden of evil’.) Evoking Lana’s new home in Los Angeles, the song alludes to her struggle for recognition (‘Like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer/Life imitates art’) and the addictive nature of celebrity (‘You’ve got that medicine I need/Fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly…’) In this hostile environment, ideals are destroyed (‘God’s dead, I said, baby that’s alright with me’.) Amid all this corruption, though, art provides solace. ‘No one’s gonna take my soul away,’ Lana vows, ‘Living like Jim Morrison…’ A tragic figure in life, Morrison has lived on in music.
This lyrical tour de force is followed by the haunting ‘Yayo’, which first appeared on her debut album, Lana Del Ray aka Lizzy Grant, in 2010. This minimalist version is produced by Haynie and Dan Heath. ‘Yayo’, which is slang for cocaine, has the simplicity of a lullaby, and like ‘American’, is addressed to a lover. But its surface gentleness belies desperation, and an aching sadness. ‘You have to take me right now,’ she pleads, ‘from this dark trailer park life now.’ Her destination is Nevada (where the ‘Ride’ video was shot.) She likens herself to ‘a druggie when I hold you.’ As in ‘Video Games’, intimacy is framed within a seedy backdrop (‘Let me put on a show for you, Daddy…’)
‘Paradise’ ends, literally, in ‘Bel Air’, named after the wealthy Los Angeles suburb. The song is produced by Dan Heath, with a dreamlike quality. Lana’s vocal is tremulous, soaring upwards with the chorus. Roses are a recurring image, and the phrase ‘sweet child o’ mine’ seems to evoke the 1987 Guns N’ Roses hit.
A video for ‘Bel Air’ was released on Youtube shortly before Paradise’s release. Filmed by Kyle Newman, ‘Bel Air’ reworks outtakes from the ‘Summertime Sadness’ video. With long, flowing hair and a white blouse, Lana appears like the subject of a pre-Raphaelite painting. She is surrounded by smoke, and the film is filtered in neon.
As with Born to Die, all lyrics and melodies were written by Lana herself (except the ‘Blue Velvet’ cover.) Whereas Born to Die was partly an ode to adolescence, Paradise follows a darker trail and reveals a maturing artist. Like Lady Gaga’s Monster EP, Paradise is not merely a repackaging and can stand on its own merits. (Hopefully Lana will continue to keep the publicity machine at bay, and not be pressurised into over-productivity.) Some critics are still apt to conflate Lana’s flair for imagery with a lack of authenticity, but she has proved herself more resilient – and talented – than many first thought, and I look forward to seeing how her next album develops.
Young and Beautiful
‘Burning Desire’ is a bonus track, available as part of the Paradise EP on iTunes. Composed with Justin Parker and produced by Emile Haynie, it was first performed at the launch of Lana’s promotional deal with Jaguar. In ‘Burning Desire’, driving and sex are indelibly linked. A video, filmed at the Rivoli Ballroom in South London, was directed by Anthony Shurmer, who previously recorded a 2012 concert by Lana at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Hotel. Wearing a white dress, Lana performs ‘Burning Desire’ against an all-red backdrop, with sensuous grace.
While preparing for a European tour in the spring of 2013, Lana released two cover versions via Youtube. ‘Chelsea Hotel’ was reportedly inspired by songwriter Leonard Cohen’s sexual liaison with Janis Joplin at the New York hostelry, a bohemian haven for artists, writers and musicians. ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’ first appeared on Cohen’s fourth studio album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974.) An earlier, longer version is now rarely played. Cohen later regretted mentioning the song’s connection to Joplin, who died in 1970. Lana’s performance is acoustic, a timely antidote to her other, more lush recordings. The cover was produced by Felix Howard, a Londoner who previously worked with Amy Winehouse on her debut album, Frank.
The video is directed by Anthony Shurmer. Lana wears the uniform of the singer-songwriter: plaid shirt, with straight black hair parted in the middle. But her heavy eyeliner and feather earrings add a more familiar layer of glamour. In the shadows, while she sings, someone very like her is smoking.
‘Summer Wine’ is a cover of a 1966 song by Lee Hazlewood. It was originally sung as a duet with Suzi Jane Hokom, then with Nancy Sinatra as a B-side to their hit single, ‘Sugartown’, and on their 1968 album, Nancy & Lee. Lana has often been compared to Sinatra – she was once described as ‘the gangsta Nancy Sinatra’. Her cover version is a duet with boyfriend Barrie James O’Neill, of the Scottish band Kassidy (who supported her on tour.) O’Neill’s gravelly vocal is a perfect contrast to Lana’s seductive purr. Few details about the recording have been given. The video, which shows the real-life lovers relaxing in Santa Monica, is reminiscent of both the ‘Summertime Sadness’ clip and Lana’s own, self-made montages. As the song ends, Billie Holiday’s ‘Good Morning Heartache’ is heard wafting from a record player.
‘Young and Beautiful’, composed with director Baz Luhrmann, is Lana’s first song written for film. Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is the fourth big-screen version. The score is defiantly modern, in an effort to draw a parallel between the decadence of 1920s America and the present day. The results are not entirely convincing. However, most critics agree that Lana’s contribution is a highlight of the soundtrack (and perhaps the film itself.) Her lyrics recall ‘American’, but the mood is elegiac, not frivolous. The song is played during the pivotal scene when Daisy realises she loves Gatsby.
In a promotional video directed by Chris Sweeney, Lana is accompanied by a full orchestra. She sings in a dark, Art Deco room, in an evening gown, and with diamond teardrops beneath her eyes. ‘Young and Beautiful’ is sung as a lament, and may well garner awards for Lana.
Although ‘Ride’ is the only full single released from Paradise, the other tracks have all been performed throughout the (mainly European) Paradise Tour. ‘Dark Paradise’, from Born to Die, became a German single in March 2013. And a Cedric Gervais remix of ‘Summertime Sadness’ climbed to No 9 in the Billboard charts by September 2013, rewarding Lana with her first US Platinum single.
Tropico, a 27-minute film written by Lana and directed by Anthony Mandler, was released in December 2013. Three songs from Paradise – ‘Body Electric’, ‘Gods and Monsters’ and ‘Bel Air’ – feature in this latter-day ‘tale of redemption’, which will be reviewed on this blog in the near future. At the Los Angeles premiere, Lana also announced that her forthcoming second album will be titled Ultraviolence. First used in Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novella, A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971), it also recalls an eerie lyric from ‘Bel Air’: ‘You’ve got a flair/For the violentest kind of love anywhere out there…’