Lana Del Rey frequently discusses her adoration of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and on her third album, Honeymoon, she writes lyrics that refer to “Rapper’s Delight,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the Eagles, Chet Baker, and Billie Holiday. With every lyric, photo and gesture, she adds another piece to her inspiration board: she has Priscilla Presley’s hairdo and Julie Christie’s eye makeup. But Del Rey’s clearest antecedent is Barbara Stanwyck, the great film noir actress who, in the 1940s and 1950s, often played an insolent femme fatale who uses cunning and sexuality to gain her independence from an oppressive marriage. And if it’s impossible to imagine Stanwyck saying, “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola,” one of Del Rey’s most hilarious and infamous lyrics, it only means she’s upped the ante.
Since her major-label debut with the single “Video Games” in 2011 and the album Born to Die the following year, Del Rey has incited reviews that feel more like assassination attempts; much of the criticism denounces her for the submissive role she takes in songs, even in the pliant way she calls her ex “baby” in Hollywood’s “Terrence Loves You.” But as any noir fan knows, that’s merely the bait.
“I like you a lot, so I do what you want,” she sings at the opening of “Music To Watch Boys To,” the second song on Honeymoon, and one of the highlights. Her voice is wrapped in gauze; she sounds stunned, almost concussed, amid the soft, slow, frosty music — chiefly strings and woodwinds — which, on her Instagram, she likened to exotica composer Les Baxter’s early-‘60s work. Then the switch: “I know what only the girls know/Lies can buy eternity,” she declares, docile as a panther, exposing her cold heart. When her lover, to whom she’s pretended to submit, heads for the door, her pulse never even goes up: “I push record and watch you leave.” A honeymoon is wonderful, but it’s also brief.
This cold-hearted equanimity is the mark of a femme fatale. “I never loved you, Walter,” Barbara Stanwyck mutters in the climactic scene of Double Indemnity, moments before Walter murders her. “Not you or anybody else.” In noir, the femme fatale’s death is inevitable, because there’s no way for her to survive an unfair world. Del Rey, who has a death fixation (“I’m scared to die, but I want to die,” she told a reporter last year), understands this.
On her previous album, the fantastic Ultraviolence, producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys disrupted her songs with spikes of tremolo guitar. Honeymoon erases most of Del Rey’s modern influences — Born to Die drew on hip-hop — to better display her sepulchral voice and highly-stylized phrasing, in which the melisma is so arbitrary, it almost seems determined by throws of the I Ching. Her lyrics this time are less detailed and quotable, and there’s a continuing determination to answer and tease critics, from the album-opening lyric “We both know it’s not fashionable to love me” (Del Rey drags out the nine words for about 12 seconds) to the album-closing cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Okay. We get the point.
And because she (justifiably) feels misunderstood, she’s begun giving the world a peak at the grift she’s been running, in the hope that people will stop underestimating her. There’s plenty of sadness on Honeymoon, but there’s also rage, violence, madness, bitterness, and comedy (the proper response to “Salvatore” — where she coos in Italian like a schoolgirl who just saw La Dolce Vita for the first time and sings “Catch me if you can, working on my tan” — is delighted laughter), even though it’s hidden in music so low-affect, it makes Mazzy Star sound like Stock Aitken Waterman. Under the cover of midnight, Del Rey has been exploring big ideas about eroticism, drugs, myth, the empty promise of YOLO, what it means to be a woman, and the American soul. But sure, keep writing her off as “sad.”