At her Denver concert at the Bellco Theatre Monday night, Lana Del Rey broke from the feel-good pop-music formula and delivered songs that were melancholy but not hopeless, beautiful but not saccharine, simple but not dull.
So many stars aim to make listeners feel great. To give us the strength to keep going — with juice. To acknowledge the muck of life but encourage us to tap into our higher selves and embrace our power. Evangelists of optimism, these divas — from Lady Gaga to Taylor Swift to Lizzo — take the mantle of the self-help guru. They’re Tony Robbins with a beat.
But there's so much more to life. For Del Rey, that’s Crosby, Stills and Nash playing on the speaker, her boring boyfriend who’s a bad poet (but goddamn, at least the manchild knows how to fuck); hanging out on a stoop with other kids from the neighborhood; wishing life was a Hallmark movie when it’s way, way glummer.
Del Rey sings about all those things on her new album, Norman F*cking Rockwell. It’s not empowering stuff. It’s not feel-good. It’s brooding, at times furious. But it's nuanced. Del Rey brings poetic urgency to mundane concerns: restless love and creativity and self-image issues. She writes short stories in songs, building characters and narrative arcs, full of richly developed settings and endless tension. That tension draws in her fans.
When she sang those songs live in Denver, she drew out each lyrical twist with the subtlest of gestures. That's where her power is born.
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In an industry in which stars have turned their sets into Sesame Street, replete with dancing sharks (Katy Perry), inflatable snakes (Taylor Swift) and Muppets (Chance the Rapper), Del Rey keeps her production simple: trees and swings. She neither undergoes garish outfit changes nor puts on ridiculous dance moves.
She did have two backup dancers in tow — a shockingly small number for an artist of her stature — who dished out some pop glitz. Does she really need them shaking their bodies, offering spectacle? Probably not. But they do remind us that we’re at a pop show, and that Del Rey refuses to play the part.
Throughout her set, she opened her mic to other artists. At one point, she invited Julia Jacklin on stage to sing with her. Then Del Rey stepped aside, sitting on a swing, listening blissfully as Jacklin performed a mesmerizing solo number. Later, Del Rey invited opener Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie fame to join her in a stirring rendition of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” In other cities, she has invited locals to open for her, though she regrettably did not do that here.
From the beginning of her set (she apologized for starting late after the crew struggled to load things in), fans treated Del Rey as enthusiastically — and occasionally inappropriately — as any other diva.
“We love you, Lana,” hundreds shouted.
A woman groaned like an animal as her favorite songs began, ready to listen with gusto.
“You get ’em, bitch,” one guy belted out, along with a dozen variations of that. More than a few people nearby looked like they wanted to pelt him.
People begged Del Rey for signatures, and she obliged. At least one person handed her a massive bouquet of red roses, which she took offstage after the show.
Unlike other artists who play the same songs in the same order night after night, Del Rey and her band shake things up. “I never know how the set list is going to go," she confessed. "But I think we’re going to do a little jazz song. It’s called 'Shades of Cool.'"
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It was no “little jazz song.” As she and her band made their way through the number, the musicians improvised wildly, veering into territory more akin to noise and doom than jazz — sounding all the heavier in contrast to her piano-driven ballads, torch songs and hip-hop-inspired pop that made up most of the set.
Skipping across genres, Del Rey has aspired to be more than a star. She positions herself as a classic songwriter — a legend like Joni Mitchell, to whom she is often compared. (The third song Del Rey played at the Bellco was "For Free," a Mitchell cover). She sings about her aspirations frankly: "And we were so obsessed with writing the next best American record/We were just that good."
For an artist who has garnered endless comparisons to Mitchell, who has been celebrated as a one-day shoo-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Del Rey has only become more and more committed to the basics: strong lyrics; simple, smart music; conflicting emotions; a compelling performance devoid of gimmicks and adornment. In that, she distinguishes her work from the other products of the pop machine. She's just that good.
Hear Lana Del Rey and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.