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LISTENING STATION: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’

- - Monday, January 30, 2012

Born to Die

Lana Del Rey

Interscope Records

★★★

Depending on whom you ask, Lana Del Rey is either a crushingly talented newcomer or the underwhelming, manufactured product of a music industry desperate to find the next Adele.

Her rise to fame - yes, racking up nearly 40 million YouTube hits before the release of one's debut album counts as fame nowadays - speaks volumes about the way we consume music in 2012. Before last summer, no one had heard of Miss Del Rey. Things changed when "Video Games" hit the Internet in June, introducing a singer who looked like a 1950s pulp-novel heroine and sang with the woozy, seductive croon of a Hollywood lounge singer.

Here was a retro songstress with enough marketing savvy to rope in an audience of 21st-century hipsters, a photogenic 20-something who updated the trends of her parents' generation for modern-day listeners. In six short months, Miss Del Rey transformed her online popularity into a major-label music career, earning a contract with Interscope Records and a performance on "Saturday Night Live" along the way. It was the first time in nearly 20 years that an artist had performed on the show without an album in stores.

That hotly tipped album, easily the most anticipated release of the year thus far, hits stores this week, and it's every bit as controversial as the singer herself. "Born to Die" bounces between genres, focusing on bubbly electro-pop one minute and showy, orchestral ballads the next. Miss Del Rey skips between characters, too; she's a chic, street-smart New Yorker one minute and a damsel in distress the next, like an actress in the old Hollywood films that her music so often evokes.

It's hard to separate the actual songs from the inches of newsprint that have pored over Miss Del Rey's every move for months. Is she the new poster child of the YouTube generation or a cautionary tale against pushing a product before it's ready? Is she worth the hype or deserving of the backlash?

Both, actually. Like most debuts, "Born to Die" stumbles at points, and Miss Del Rey sounds awkward whenever she trades her melodramatic torch-singer shtick for beat-heavy songs like "This Is What Makes Us Girls." The album is a bit too long, too, with the deluxe edition topping out at 15 tracks. The girl needs to consolidate, not indulge her every musical whim.

When "Born to Die" focuses on her strengths, though, it's pretty fascinating. "Video Games" is sad-eyed and gorgeous, boosted by a string arrangement straight out of a film-noir soundtrack. "Blue Jeans" mixes Nancy Sinatra-influenced melodies with a thumping, R&B backing track. "National Anthem" stumbles a bit during the verses, which are rapped in an exaggerated New York accent, but the chorus explodes like July 4th fireworks.

As its title suggests, "Born to Die" is the stuff of exaggeration, a melodramatic cry from a singer who's far too young to sound so sad. It's also a sturdy debut, though, one that suggests there may be something substantive behind all that hype after all.

Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen

Columbia

★★★

Once a young man who sounded twice his age, Leonard Cohen is now in his late 70s. You can hear every year in his voice, a well-worn baritone that booms with resonance and authority. Those aged vocals take center stage on "Old Ideas," an album that mixes spoken-word poetry with snatches of acoustic blues, lounge music and minimalist Americana.

"Old Ideas" recycles most of Mr. Cohen's tried-and-true tricks. His speak/sing delivery hasn't changed much since the 1960s, and he still combines religious imagery with secular sexuality. If "Old Ideas" sounds familiar, though, it's still a quietly shining example of how to sustain a career four decades after your debut.

The man wears his old age well, allowing his voice to scrape the bottom of the bass clef during songs such as "Going Home." When he does sing, the effect is immediately uplifting, like clouds parting to reveal a long-forgotten sun. "Old Ideas" doesn't make much room for sunshine, though, preferring a sort of late-night ambience accentuated by warm acoustic guitars and female harmonies instead.

"If the night is long, here's my lullaby," he murmurs toward the album's conclusion. Sweet dreams, indeed.