Del Rey explores themes of liberation on Paradise

With her latest album, Paradise, Lana Del Rey plays with character just as much as she continues to develop her signature sound.

The indie-pop artist — real name Elizabeth Grant — maintains the 1960s American girl persona she created on January’s Born to Die. But now, she’s abandoned themes of comfortable suburbia in favor of embracing the open road and personal liberation, all while preserving her hazy, atmospheric tone.

Paradise, which fans can purchase as a solo CD or as a joint album with Born to Die, features eight new songs, each expressing a different facet of Del Rey’s interpretation of a commercial ’60s era. With songs named “Cola,” “American” and “Bel Air,” Del Rey delivers an acceptable follow-up to an album that contained tracks titled “Blue Jeans” and “Diet Mountain Dew.” If some critics objected to Del Rey’s overly affected personality, they can’t accuse her of inconsistency.

Fans of Born to Die will immediately notice a striking musical similarity between Paradise’s tracks. Whereas Del Rey’s debut album sported a noticeable dynamic as the artist jumped between fast-paced songs, such as “Off to the Races” and “National Anthem,” and slower numbers, like “Million Dollar Man” and “Video Games,” Paradise maintains a sharp continuity. Every track presents the listener with the same drowsy tone and dragging tempo.

But Del Rey’s latest album isn’t monotonous. Instead, Paradise flaunts one cohesive sound, which Del Rey probes and examines just as much as she nostalgically explores multiple elements of ’60s Americanism.

“Ride,” the album’s first single, kicks Paradise off with mumbled, sustained vocals underscored by a progressive piano line. Del Rey’s drawling alto reaches new depths as she groans, “I been out on that open road / But you can be my full time daddy white and gold.” As a percussion beat picks up, moody orchestral strings supplement Del Rey’s breathy exhalation of the chorus’ line “I just ride,” which the listener soon realizes is her mantra for the rest of the album.

Del Rey explores this unrestrained liberation on tracks like “American.” Whereas Born to Die chronicled brutal love and simple romance as Del Rey sang lines such as “You said I was the most exotic flower / holding me tight in our final hour,” (“Million Dollar Man”) and “Do you think we’ll be in love forever?” (“Diet Mountain Dew”), Paradise focuses more on hedonism and sexual freedom. On “American,” Del Rey flaunts more of her signature patriotism as she describes a passionate encounter with an unknown lover: “You make me crazy, you make me wild / … like an American.” Lazy strings and pressing, half-spoken vocals enhance the fascinated tone behind the song’s detailed lyrics, evoking the sensation that the artist is fondly narrating past events as the distant memories return to her.

“Bel Air” and “Yayo” flaunt Del Rey’s admirable ability to capture multiple emotions at once. “Yayo,” mostly dominated by Del Rey’s raspy vocals, describes a desperate strip tease. “Let me put on a show for you, Daddy,” sings Del Rey, even as her quivering voice suggests discomfort and vulnerability. A similar balancing act occurs on “Bel Air.” As a pure, moving piano line echoes the innocence of a lullaby, Del Rey expresses restrained eagerness to greet an approaching lover. Despite the labored quality of the bass drums, Del Rey’s slowly ascending vocal line forces listeners to experience her anticipation.

“Body Electric” employs a similarly suspenseful rhetorical device. As she sings of Walt Whitman, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, Del Rey’s sometimes-thin-sometimes-round alto describes her sexual yearnings while twanging guitars and rolling drums add tension to a song with an almost narrative arc.

But perhaps the most sexually liberated song on Paradise comes from “Gods and Monsters.” As a staticky intro builds to a syncopated chorus, Del Rey sings, “F-ck yeah give it to me / this is heaven, what I truly want / It’s innocence lost.” As religious imagery of angels, heaven and gods surround these carnal lyrics, it’s clear that Del Rey’s rebellion represents a sharp departure from her attitude on her former album. There are no messages of true, eternal love here.

It’s a shame that she’s sacrificed Born to Die’s subtlety to define her more liberated persona. “Cola,” which stands as one of Paradise’s more musically notable tracks, features a catchy, moving chorus and impressive vocalizing that suggests that Del Rey’s range is much wider than she’s letting on. But then the song startles the listener with unnecessarily vulgar lyrics. Though the album’s third track represents an attempt to color and shape her uninhibited persona, Del Rey’s metaphors seem extreme and overdone — especially with opening lines where she informs the listener that “[her] p-ssy taste like Pepsi cola.” Gross.

But even Del Rey’s minor lyrical setbacks don’t prevent the album from holding a title as one of the year’s best. With the bubbly pop soprano sounds of artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Ellie Goulding dominating airwaves, Del Rey’s determined alto and lower musical stylings add a welcome respite to shallow and predictable Top 40 hits.

The artist’s latest might not be paradise, but it’s awfully close.