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strange hymns: why seeing lana del rey live is a spiritual experience

What does it mean to be a captivating performer in 2017?

Perhaps it has something to do with the stadiums that artists sell out, the pyrotechnics their show uses, or the complex dance routines they train tirelessly to perfect. Or, perhaps it’s something simpler than that. Perhaps, in the case of Lana Del Rey, it’s enough to have a voice that people are beguiled by.

Lana’s had a lengthy, complex relationship with performing live, one that started five years ago with a shaky and now infamous rendition of Blue Jeans on Saturday Night Live (trolls called it “the worst SNL performance ever”). Even now, those who don’t follow her career still define her stage presence by those four minutes of widely disseminated TV.

Thankfully, we’ve been lucky enough to see Lana Del Rey live twice in the past month: once in a wet Norwegian field (she still blew us away) at Øya Festival, and again at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, her biggest UK venue to date. On both occasions, del Rey’s crowd were left reeling.

In anticipation of her upcoming world tour, here are four reasons why, despite the hearsay, you’d be a fool to pass up seeing America’s iconic songstress live.

Nobody can emulate her exquisite voice

She may be a shy soul on stage, but any glints of awkwardness or unsure vocals are firmly in her past. As she coos her way through songs from all four of her albums, it’s as clear that Lana Del Rey is a wonderful a vocalist and a remarkable songwriter. Her deep, Dugazon singing style – once the reason why her live performances went down so poorly with snobby critics – is now a glimmering asset; having sung them live so much, songs like Video Games and Blue Jeans are pitch perfect and heart wrenching.

 

Photo by Neil Krug. Courtesy of House of 27/Purple PR

Lyrically, it’s as if she’s speaking to a whole generation

Lana may be the queen of lyrical affairs and crimes committed for love, but on her latest album Lust for Life, her topic of discussion shifts, becoming much more autobiographical. Inspired in part by Trump’s rise to power and the looming threat of nuclear war, the latest sets delve deeply into the murky yet vital subject matter. Her passion for it couldn’t be clearer than when she chooses an off-kilter album cut to perform live: Change. Named after the change she observed both in herself and the world around her, Lana confesses that it’s the last song she wrote on the new record, but it irrefutably feels like the song she feels closest to. “There’s something in the water, I can taste it turning sour. It’s bitter, I’m coughing, but now it’s in my blood“. Strangely, as she sings this line live, it feels like a striking double entendre: is she pondering infatuation, or the looming atomic bomb our generation may terrifyingly encounter?

Her set is short, but spellbinding

She arrives on stage and leaves barely an hour later; a strange decision for an artist with four album’s worth of exquisite material to showcase. What’s even more mystifying is the way her set list is formed. On the two times we saw her, she opened one set with Walt Whitman-inspired Body Electric and the other with Ultraviolence‘s opener, Cruel World. They’re hardly two songs that set a crowd on fire, but both have this woozy, daydream-like feel to them. When these songs are the backing track to Lana appearing from behind the stage to face a thirteen thousand-strong crowd, they feel like strange hymns or musical calls to arms. In that moment, you’re not witnessing a chart hit, just a spellbinding songstress, quietly commanding your attention.

The title track on her album, Lust for Life, is (for now) nowhere to be seen, while popular songs from her previous albums are left out in favour of deep cuts like Music To Watch Boys To. She finishes everything off with the upbeat brilliance of Off to the Races, complete with her breathy, cloud rap vocals and some 60s choreography – a rarity for a star who once preferred to sing directly into the mic and sway.

Fans worship her, and she reciprocates that love

If you were to listen to Lana purely on record, you might assume that she’s the kind of stoic singer with a daunting stage presence – arriving, performing, and leaving as soon as it’s done. But the relationship between fan and artist is a spiritual one; as much as her music seems tied to nostalgic themes, there’s an element of having to watch over the generations to come in it too. It’s most present in Love, a song she delivers acoustically to a dewy-eyed audience of sprightly, loyal fans. “Look at you kids, you know you’re the coolest,” she sings to them. “The world is yours and you can’t refuse it.”

When her set ends, she shimmies to the side of the stage and practically leaps towards the front row, taking photos with fans and signing autographs for them. In an age of distant, digital communication and immeasurable gaps between fame and the real world, Lana Del Rey’s old-fashioned loyalty is a joyous sight to see.

Lana Del Rey will tour in support of Lust for Life throughout 2017

Douglas Greenwood

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