After the American Idol appearances, countless magazine covers, and gigantic H&M billboards, it seems ridiculous that anyone ever had an argument about the indie cred of Lana Del Rey, or whether indie cred even mattered. Despite her Pitchfork-fueled rocket launch into the public eye, it's clear now that she's a much more natural fit in the gigantic mainstream overworld of pop music than some "authentic" singer-songwriter reimagined as a gangster Nancy Sinatra. We argued for so long about who she was and what was important, and the answer in hindsight was: none of it. The LDR machine would continue its upward inertia, regardless of the consensus of our thinkpieces, and become one of today's institutions in pop music. She is, pretty much, as close as we're going to get to Warren Ellis' horror vision of a pop icon virus in SUPERIDOL.
"Chelsea Hotel No. 2" is my favorite Leonard Cohen song. "Hallelujah" is a long thing to immerse yourself in, and as sacred as it can be, the intimacy of this secret ballad to a deceased love is more powerful to my tastes. When I heard Lana Del Rey dropped a cover on YouTube, my initial reaction was to cringe, but then I tried to suppress that reaction because I know that's just music snob bullshit.
My opinion on Del Rey is that I was on the fence until her album came out, at which point I fell off on the "against" side. I don't mind that her identity was preconceived (or "manufactured" if you're less generous.) A lot of artists I like are just characters or marketing schemes, like The Weeknd. But BORN TO DIE was full of submission and conformity dressed up as sexy pathos that it felt regressive and hollow. Then, while on my daily commute where I pass a giant H&M billboard of her modeling 3 sweaters, I realized she seemed intent on working in Pepsi Co brands into her songs. For someone based on Americana imagery, you would think she would go for the classic Coke references, and I started to get suspicious she was angling for a Pepsi sponsorship if she wasn't secretly hooked into one already.
All of that is just background noise to this song, though. Despite I, and everyone else, already solidly divided into our subjective camps of how we feel about Lana Del Rey, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" is a great song and I should probably listen to the cover before saying anything about it. I know. BRB.
Oddness of the microphone-in-candlelight video aside, it's a good rendition. Minimalism is the safest and most appropriate bet, aand I'm glad they didn't use that tinny string section they wheeled out all over her debut album. It's a smart choice cover, too. Unfamiliar to her youth audience, it comes with a lot of cred, it's not played out, it fits her motif, it's more accessible once attached to a pretty voice - if she had any reason to try and rehabilitate her career, this would have been a great chess move. She sings the whole thing in her barely-there but constant vibrato, although she briefly switches to a breathy jazz lounge singer voice in the middle like she's not sure which take to go with. I like it better as the former - lounge singer voices are everywhere, and for all her lyrical annoyances no one really has her distinct voice in pop or indie.
I try to keep a look out for how context changes in a cover. The original was a secret ode to the deceased Janis Joplin, but ripped from any sentimentality. It's a reflective but brutally honest look at a brief relationship and what it means now - which is, not much. "I don't even think of you that often," is one of my favorite ending lyrics because it's such a dagger in the song. Del Rey's version, obviously, disconnects it from this context and as a result is a less emotional piece. Yet her character fits the rest of the song like a shoe: the overbearing spectre of fame, the New York imagery, the heartbreaking apathy to romance.
It's a good cover. To me, these are the best lyrics she's ever sung, and a snapshot of what she might be if she could stop talking about her vagina tasting like Pepsi. Asking for writing like Cohen's is a ridiculously tall order, for her or for anyone. It's the reason their covers are so prolific. They become standards that require updating to continue their resonance through time.