Review: Lana Del Rey, a Character No More

Lana Del Rey kicked off a short run of shows supporting her fourth album, “Lust for Life,” in San Francisco.
Credit...Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — When Lana Del Rey arrived six years ago, she was like a recovered memory, familiar and unsettling. Her preoccupations were nostalgia and melodrama, and strategic falseness became a kind of calling card. Her songs were sly and sometimes bracing, but they were most effective as a soundtrack for her real-time performance art.

But an interesting thing has happened in recent years: Ms. Del Rey’s personal mythology has receded, making way for her songcraft.

She’s so steady, in fact, that her Tuesday night concert at the cavernous Bill Graham Civic Auditorium here that kicked off a handful of concerts to support her latest album, “Lust for Life,” barely bothered with theater at all. For more than an hour, Ms. Del Rey was eerily casual, singing and smiling with the ease of someone performing at singer-songwriter night at the local coffee shop.

That mode, though, was also something of a troll. Ms. Del Rey is a cult favorite who operates at a high level of popularity. She is not embraced for her simplicity, but rather for the way her elegiac, gloomy pop telegraphs layers of meaning and implies both actual and imagined histories. Even at her plainest, she is opaque, and so with her persona working so hard, she barely had to move.

If her debut album, “Born to Die,” was the work of someone playing a role, then her fourth album, “Lust for Life,” which was released in July, is the work of someone who has lately come to terms with her own flesh. She alludes to politics and social circumstance, indicating a willingness to portray herself as a person living in the present moment. And she collaborates with Sean Lennon (a Beatles proxy) and Stevie Nicks as a way of identifying her influences and standing beside them, not inside them.

At their best, Ms. Del Rey’s songs are both sly pop and whimsical commentary on pop, but at this show, she didn’t treat them as texts in need of reverence. Instead, she just sang: luxurious curlicues on “Shades of Cool,” coy sighs on “Music to Watch Boys To,” sweet teases on “Cherry,” and even some juvenile sneering on “Blue Jeans.” She didn’t overburden her set with songs from her new album, but she also largely avoided the sublime cool of her last album, “Honeymoon.” Instead, she leaned heavily on the woozy romance of “Born to Die,” and the songs from her latest — especially “White Mustang” — that evoke a similar mood.

At times, her fiery band added dimension to round out her narrative — parched Western guitars on “Blue Jeans,” or unnerving bass drum shivers on “Ride.” “Body Electric” was lavishly thick, with the aquatic thrum of an Enya song, then concluded with outright guitar squall.

Ms. Del Rey, whose early live concerts were legendarily challenged, was as comfortable as she has ever been, though by no means assured. Mostly she stayed near center stage and moved little, giving the performance an overall grayscale effect, like floating in an ocean and never being sure when, or if, you’ll hit land.

There were few guideposts. The primary decoration was Ms. Del Rey’s last name, written in ice-blue cursive neon, looming ominously over the stage. During about half of the show, she was flanked by a pair of singer-dancers dressed in goth cheerleader outfits who slithered in slow motion, as if to parody the very idea of backup dancers. A couple of times they joined Ms. Del Rey at the front of the stage, and the three of them all enacted a lighthearted routine that seemed intended to connote knowledge of what’s usually expected at pop concerts while being awkward enough to not deliver on the promise.

At the end of the night, Ms. Del Rey didn’t stick around for an encore, but she didn’t quite retreat either. Instead, she jumped down into the pit between the stage and the crowd and began greeting the faithful one by one, taking selfies and signing autographs. The screens on either side of the stage showed the scene in black and white. Even in this most present of moments, she was already living in the past tense.