Nov 11, 2022
By Austin Saalman
“Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend,” sings indie pop phenomenon Lana Del Rey on her beguiling, if overlooked Paradise EP, identifying herself yet again as a neon lovechild of popular culture, and further mythologizing herself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Del Rey lit up the mainstream’s night sky nearly 10 months prior with the release of her blockbuster major label debut Born to Die, which both thrilled and affronted critics, setting a new standard for millennial pop music, and amassing the 26-year-old singer/songwriter a loyal following of disillusioned youths. Her early fans were children of a post-9/11 world, those melancholic products of great recessions, wars on terror, and widening sociopolitical divides, to whom she repeatedly delivered something of an electric pop gospel. Paradise remains a peculiar musical artifact, in that its music is uncommonly strong for an EP released on the heels of a controversial major album and represents something of a farewell to Del Rey’s various Born to Die-era personae. Furthermore, Del Rey had recently relocated from her native New York to Los Angeles, with Paradise becoming her first solid “west coast” release. Even without such significance, however, the EP is deserving of far more acknowledgment, not only as an oft-overlooked 2010s alt-pop gem, but also as one of Del Rey’s finest creative achievements.
Opening blue-eyed soul number “Ride” instantly distinguishes itself from Born to Die’s tracklist, as Del Rey tells of her time spent “on that open road,” presumably passing from coast to coast. There is a proud determination amidst Del Rey’s apparent weariness, as she sings, “I hear the birds on the summer breeze, I drive fast/I am alone at midnight/Been trying hard not to get into trouble, but I/I’ve got a war in my mind,” as her words pass upon the silken winds of producer Rick Rubin’s intoxicating “love theme” strings. “Ride” is signature Del Rey and represents the artist’s impulse to come out swinging—this time demonstrating her artistic versatility, by furthering her own sound, while insinuating potential crossover appeal. This has given rise to notable comparisons with the likes of Adele, and, oddly enough, Brandon Flowers. In a moment of raw vulnerability, Del Rey declares, “I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy/I’m tired of driving ‘til I see stars in my eyes,” showcasing the first seam as it comes unfastened. Ten years later, “Ride” is a smooth baroque daydream of roadside passion and the sort of drive toward freedom of which only the young and divine might have been crazy enough to dream.
A crisp ballad of young love in Los Angeles, the subsequent “American” continues Del Rey’s vintage fixations, with talk of vinyl, cruising, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Presley. The track’s syrupy strings sweeten Del Rey’s narrative of reckless youth enchanted, and one can envision rays of afternoon sunlight falling across Pacific Coast Highway on a blue autumn day. Here, as always, Del Rey remains a master conjurer, taking the listener out to the movies and on the road with her through song. Still, despite her insistence to “be young, be dope, be proud,” there remains a peculiar sense of sorrow underpinning her journey, as though the singer understands all too well the ephemeral nature of American dreaming. The Old Hollywood fantasia of “American” subsequently becomes a nightmare on the contentious “Cola,” as Del Rey moves deeper into the realm of gritty art pop, its plotline’s audible darkness deeply infused with its polished Luciferian hooks. Here, Del Rey makes her infamous declaration: “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola/My eyes are wide like cherry pies.” Some have argued that the track’s crassness and toxicity exist for no other purpose than mere shock value, serving to accentuate Del Rey’s excessive tongue in cheek patriotism and the track’s hyper-polished pop bent. “Cola” may be among Paradise’s least remarkable entries, but it is by no means a failure on Del Rey’s part, effectively representing the relentless culture of excess, corruption, and exploitation in which she had become engulfed.
On “Body Electric,” Del Rey turns to American poet Walt Whitman for inspiration, refashioning “I sing the body electric” into a white-eyed exorcistic chant recited to expel a crystal Baphomet from within the bowels of Mount Lee. The Hollywood sign trembles, its lettering coming loose, sliding down the mountainside into the darkness as Del Rey sings, “We get down every Friday night/Dancing and grinding in the pale moonlight/Grand Ole Opry/We’re feeling alright/Mary prays the rosary for my broken mind.” Elsewhere, Del Rey gives Bobby Vinton a run for his money on her star-spangled cover of “Blue Velvet,” which leans heavily into the rich baroque influences of Born to Die—a mock-patriotic fanfare for a haunted country quickly slipping over the brink. It is Del Rey’s smokey vocals which serve to nuance the track, embodying the glamor and heartache of the classic tragedy from which she has consistently drawn aesthetic inspiration, lacking only the sound of exploding fireworks to place the final dramatic note. Elsewhere, the “live fast, die young” epic tragedy of “Gods & Monsters” sees Del Rey clinging tightly to her soul while “living like Jim Morrison.” The track finds Del Rey drifting further into the cynical 2010s, proclaiming, “God’s dead, I said, ‘Baby, that’s alright with me.’” Ultimately, “Gods & Monsters” remains a significant transitional track for Del Rey, on which she takes a moment to impart a stirring warning which, in the face of the immediate future, feels ever fitting of the decade: “Life imitates art.”
The penultimate “Yayo,” various versions of which have existed since Del Rey was recording as Lizzy Grant in the 2000s, is a minimalistic retro-soul ballad, bathed in a ghostly glow as she shifts from smokey rasp to smooth vocals and back, painting an atmospheric portrait of bad love and cocaine fantasies, singing, “Put me onto your black motorcycle/’50s baby doll dress for my ‘I do.’” Fans have drawn parallels between “Yayo” and Born to Die’s “Off to the Races,” both of which appear to concern the same kingpin lover. The sweeping gothic romance of closing track “Bel Air,” an album standout, concludes Paradise on an eerily mystifying note, Del Rey singing, “Palm trees in the light, I can see, late at night/Darling, I’m waiting to greet you/Come to me, baby.” “Bel Air” remains one of Del Rey’s most overlooked tracks, its rich cinematic yearning and spiritual energy permitting a brief glimpse into the rosy afterlife of Elizabeth Woolridge Grant as she invites the listener to “walk in the way of [her] soft resurrection.” All the while, Dan Heath’s phantasmagoric production value lends the track’s orchestral lilt a certain Tim Burton-esque atmosphere, closing the album on an affecting note.
A decade on, Paradise remains an arresting effort, though Del Rey has since evolved far beyond the millennial dreamland of her earlier output. By comparison, the EP may lack a great amount of Born to Die’s size and spirit, but this is only because, perhaps, the spirit of Born to Die had since dissipated into the misty ambiance of late 2012. Barack Obama had won a second term in office one week prior to Paradise’s worldwide release, and the Sandy Hook massacre was a mere four weeks off, placing the EP in an eerily optimistic moment between hope and horror, moving it beyond the cultural barriers of its predecessor. While a reissue of Del Rey’s major label debut entitled Born to Die: The Paradise Edition was released simultaneously and sought to merge both LP and EP into a single listening experience, either effort remains aesthetically distinguished. Though Paradise boasts a mere eight tracks, not one among them is wasted, and the EP itself—small but mighty—dares to offer the listener something close to an “album” experience. Throughout, Del Rey delivers on each entry, wasting not a single relevant detail, steeping Paradise deep in the sound and popular culture of its era, and providing an exhilarating bookend to a year that certain believers swore would be earth’s final.