Lana Del Rey is a femme fatale with a smoky voice, a languorous image, and a modeling contract. Not coincidentally, she didn't lack for attention leading up to the release of her Interscope debut, Born to Die. The hype began in mid-2011 with a stunning song and video for "Video Games," and it kept on rising, right up to her January 2012 performance on Saturday Night Live (making her the first artist since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998 to perform on SNL without an album available). Although it's easy to see the reasons why Del Rey got her contract, it's also easy to hear: her songwriting skills and her bewitching voice. "Video Games" is a beautiful song, calling to mind Fiona Apple and Anna Calvi as she recounts another variation on the age-old trope of female-as-sex-object. Her vacant, tired reading of the song rescues it from any hint of exploitation, making it a winner. Unfortunately, the only problem with Born to Die is a big one. There is a chasm that separates "Video Games" from the other material and performances on the album, which aims for exactly the same target -- sultry, sexy, wasted -- but with none of the same lyrical grace, emotional power, or sympathetic productions. Del Rey doesn't mind taking chances, varying her vocalizing and delivery, toying with her lines and reaching for cinematic flourishes ("he loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart," "Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice"), and even attempting to rap. But she's unable to consistently sell herself as a heartbreaker, and most of the songs here sound like cobbled retreads of "Video Games." An intriguing start, but Del Rey is going to have to hit the books if she wants to stay as successful as her career promised early on.
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Review by John Bush