On Honeymoon, Lana Del Rey is in the director's chair

Her music has always been called cinematic, but on her loneliest album yet, she's calling every shot

In a recent interview on Pitchfork, Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, spoke about his friendship with Lana Del Rey, and his collaboration with her on his most recent album. "She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music," he said. "Even the whole monologue intro on “Lonely Star” from Thursday — I just realized now that that’s Lana. That’s Lana’s voice. I mean, it’s my voice pitched up, but it’s her, it’s who she is."

The intro in question, rendered nearly unintelligible in ghostly echoes, is Tesfaye speaking from the perspective of a woman who wants but can't have him all to herself, but still pines self-destructively. "Let the wrong path come to me," girl-Abel mumbles. When the monologue is repeated at the end of the song, he adds:

Give them any other day but Thursday
You belong to me
Every Thursday
I wait for you
I'll be beautiful for you
Every Thursday
I exist
Only on Thursday

It's classic Weeknd nihilism, made even more audacious by the fact that we are listening to Tesfaye play a woman who's obsessed with him — an unreliable narrator if ever there was one. That last line is telling, though: "I exist only on Thursday"? Tesfaye's music, like Lana's, is often called cinematic — a great word for tamping down one's own credulousness — and here he's falling into that old bad screenwriting habit, the conveniently vanishing woman. But that's The Weeknd schtick: he plays a predator, sometimes downright spiteful and mocking of the women he sings about taking advantage of, but makes sure we know it's because he's broken inside. Though his songs, in keeping with R&B tradition, are almost always addressed to women, they are ultimately just there as evidence of The Weeknd's emotional state. And it's all so over the top and graphic that we'd be fools to take any of it seriously, right? But the girls — the ones in the song, the ones listening — know they exist after the hookup's over. And every other day of the week is where the story really lives.

"I know what only the girls know," Lana Del Rey sings on "Music to Watch Boys To," the second song on her fourth album Honeymoon. It's been an asset of her songwriting for a while: for as much criticism as Lana gets for playing into musty old gender roles, she has always given a rich inner life to the female half of that dynamic. The line echoes another from 2012's Born To Die: "This is what makes us girls / We don't stick together ‘cause we put love first." Love still comes first on Honeymoon, but it defines itself by its absence. Gone is the breathless exuberance of "National Anthem" or "Off To The Races," even the conflicted pleasures and doomed romanticism of "Ride" and "West Coast" are not available here. Lana is more alone than she's ever been; she's kept the camera rolling long after the men and boys who populated her previous releases have left the frame. And in that solitude begins to emerge something like a life out from under the influence — of a man, of The Man.

Lana at her most lyrically paralyzed and artistically powerful

Like Tesfaye, Lana is a world builder and a storyteller, though I would argue, one with 10 times the imagination. She plays off and into the biographical truth of those stories, muddling them so as to make sure it doesn't matter. It's a creative flourish as much as a defense mechanism. Diaristic writing has long been expected of women; when a female writer speaks in first person we assume she is taking down her factual life like dictation because she's incapable of anything else, whereas we're more conditioned to accept the possibility that a male writer has crafted something whole cloth.

Of course, Lana, like virtually any other major label singer, songwriter, or rapper, has a team of people helping her realize her vision, whether in songwriting, production, or visual design. This team has not been constant; Lana has flitted around to enough different co-writers that the strength of the peculiar Lana-ness throughout her catalog should be seen as evidence of how much power she retains in those sessions. It's fascinating, then, if counterintuitive, that the album that finds Lana at her most lyrically paralyzed is the one on whose lead single she announces, "Lights, camera, action / I'll do it on my own." The staff on Honeymoon is notably stripped down; Rick Nowels (who has worked recently with Jamie xx, Brandon Flowers, and Fleetwood Mac) is the only other songwriting credit on the album, and all the tracks were produced by Lana and Nowels and promoted by Born to Die engineer Kieron Menzies. For anyone still accusing Lana of being a powerless creation of a record exec, this one's for you.

On first listen, it's easier to see how more cooks in the kitchen might have kept the momentum going on her previous releases — even 2014's Dan Auerbach-produced Ultraviolence, which sounded languid at the time but is like a Dr. Luke album next to Honeymoon. Honeymoon often feels like a reaction against Ultraviolence, the album which marked a turning point in her public image and won her a lot of critical praise. It was a triumph of personality and production, but the "Lana's a real artist now!" narrative that came with it not-so-subtly emphasized the Black Keys frontman as its guiding hand; we heard a lot about how he brought a live band into the recording studio and lent the album a Southern-tinged veneer of authenticity. Lana was culling from the same bursting scrapbook of influences as her previous releases, but those who scoffed at Born To Die's "Hollywood sadcore" collage didn't seem to mind as much when it came in a '70s rock package.

The Ultraviolence track that would be most at home on Honeymoon is "Old Money," which is one of the only songs Auerbach neither co-wrote nor produced. That song talks about a life in the past tense the way Honeymoon does; it also clears the room in a similar manner, with Lana frequently singing over a single piano line. The selective retro influence of Born To Die is back in full force in the weepy strings of "Honeymoon" and smoky saxophone of "Terrence Loves You," but this time Lana's the only one with her foot on the gas pedal, and we'll go when she wants us to go, goddammit. Had a Max Martin type been brought on to optimize the commerciality of Honeymoon, he might have tried to convince her to turn her self-destruction into something catchy and energizing (as he did with Tesfaye on the world-conquering "I Can't Feel My Face"), but Lana seems determined to keep everything at a pace that feels true to her, workable to her.

The result is an album that's hard to acclimate to at first (though in my experience, all of Lana's albums have been growers), but once you've relinquished control to her the way you would to any other director, the nuances of her point of view are more exposed than they've ever been. I was trying to figure out what's so chill-inducing about "God Knows I Tried," a barn-burning ballad dragged along almost against its will by a 3/4 time signature. It's the album's best song, and one of the only songs she's ever recorded that does not mention a single man. "Tried" doesn't refer to keeping a relationship afloat, or earning someone's love — she's just singing about trying to be a person. That it's in past tense prepares us for the other standout "Swan Song," in which she considers giving up music altogether — although that time with the added fantasy of running away with someone else.

All the relationships in Honeymoon are either in the past or suppositions Lana seems to know are impossible even as she utters them. ("Dreaming away your life," she admonishes herself repeatedly at the end of the title track.) Making a career out of singing about love is probably exhausting, and she hasn't been exactly celebratory of romance since Born To Die. The last time she described a remotely functional relationship, it was on "Brooklyn Baby," the best track on Ultraviolence, and that functionality was drenched in achingly bitter irony, listing the trappings of a pre-fab bohemian existence with all the enthusiasm of a grocery list. If Lana was deadpan then, she's near death now, and maybe that's how she wants it.

But when she sings with The Weeknd on The Beauty Behind the Madness about being "addicted to a life that's so empty and cold," it feels disingenuous, and self-defeating in a way that Honeymoon is not. She's clearly not out of ideas, even if she's out of love, and she has the most autonomy over her career that she's had since she was posing in cheap wigs and splicing together her own videos for "Mermaid Motel" and "Kill Kill." All that dreaming has done a lot of favors for her in the past. It would be exciting to see her ever-growing artistic independence get out of bed and stretch a little.