Lana Del Rey’s new album, Lust for Life, is getting a lot of attention for two reasons: 1) It’s a change in tone, with a brighter emotional palette than her other work—all the songs are still about being hopelessly in love, but they’re less self-consciously tragic, less about love’s destructive potential and more about the rush; 2) this is her first album to feature collaborations. They’re both compelling changes, and would be interesting even if the album weren’t good, which it is (though like all of Lana’s albums, to me at least, it’s two or three songs too long). The first song I heard was “Love,” and I was hooked by its millennial-Springsteen vibe, the candy-colored power-ballad chords muted by a spare, echoey arrangement—plus, I’m a sucker for a Beach Boys quote.
Given all this, I was super excited when I heard there’d be a duet with Stevie Nicks, one of my idols. But it took me a while to warm to “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems.” Its placement on the album—in the final stretch, immediately before the collaboration with Sean Lennon—made me suspicious, as if Lana might be making a last-minute grab for the easy nostalgia Lana-haters always accuse her of.
And the song itself doesn’t sound Stevie-worthy on first listen. The A$AP Rocky collab “Summer Bummer” didn’t work for me, but its hip-hop inflections—the scritchy beat, the incessant ad libs—give it an off-kilter energy that’s a fun change of pace; even the Lennon song, “Tomorrow Never Came,” which definitely is a play for easy nostalgia, from the title to the Beatles-esque guitar to the line about “singing with Sean,” has a catchy-as-hell pre-chorus that is recognizably a blend of the two artists’ sounds.
In contrast, “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems” starts with a piano playing the same chord for about a minute (not very Stevie) and lyrics that sound less melancholy than resigned. When Stevie starts singing, she sounds tentative; her famous, and by now famously aging, voice is reedy and strains for the high notes, and her lyrics are as plodding as Lana’s. And for the next few minutes, the song offers no surprises, going through the motions (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro) over what sound like the same four chords over and over. On first listen, I was (summer) bummed. I just expect Lana to bring her A+ game for my Stevie.
But on second listen, something magical happens at 3:20, when the two women plunge into the chorus together for the second time, accompanied by a wash of strings and layered vocal harmonies. I realize that their voices are perfectly matched: Lana’s been subtly modulating her tone, adding a core of quiet steel beneath her usual breathy languor. And Stevie’s been meeting her in the middle, playing up the vulnerability and melancholy her voice is capable of. The effect is of two women at very different points in their lives recognizing, ruefully, all they have in common.
It’s still not my favorite song on the album (maybe “Love”? though “Cherry”’s callback to the harder edges of Ultraviolence is a welcome change of pace for an album that’s dreamy to a fault), but now I listen waiting for that soaring, heartbroken chorus, and on the way I notice a few other lovely touches. The understatement of Stevie’s line “My heart is soft, my past is rough,” and the way she slows down imperceptibly as she sings it, is a quiet heartbreak all its own.
(If you can’t get enough Lana and Stevie, check out this interview they did for V magazine.)