Odd Couples: Lana Del Rey’s “Cruel World” vs. the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song”

Many North Americans got their first exposure to the phenomenon known as Lana Del Rey when she became one of the few artists to perform on Saturday Night Live before her major label recording was even released. Her neo-retro torch-singer persona and her musical performance that evening conjured up a lot negative comments from music critics and music fans alike.

Many of the comments were variations of “that’s all been done better before,” “she’s just a show business invention, more fashion model than artist,” and “she can’t sing!” In spite of that, her debut album still made a decent run up the charts and eventually sold millions worldwide. She got so popular that she even signed on with a modelling agency — to do some work on the side, as it were.

Frankly, I was one of those people who watched her SNL gig and came away unimpressed. But when I heard that Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced her latest release Ultraviolence, I was intrigued by how the producer/artist combination might work out, since Del Rey and Auerbach each typically work in distinctly different musical styles.

The first song I heard off the album was a torch ballad called “Cruel World” — a long, slow, oozing, reverb drenched affair, which I guess is what I should have expected. It’s kind of cool, even with the regular f-bombs that show up in the chorus.

Still, there was something I just couldn’t pin down. I was sure I’d heard something similar to this before, and not from a traditional torch singer. The idea had to stew in the back of my mind for a couple of days and then, in a moment of clarity it struck me: “Porpoise Song” by the Monkees.

For those who might only remember the Monkees’ from reruns of their TV series or the inevitability of their hit “I’m a Believer” on classic rock radio (or the re-make on the Shrek soundtrack), here’s a quick history: In the mid-1960s, impressed by the power of Beatlemania, some TV producers in Los Angeles were inspired to put together a weekly show about four personable young men who would be America’s fictional prime time equivalent of the lads from Liverpool.

So they hired two musicians and two actors and basically signed them to a contract where the production team had most of the power. The Monkees eventually led a palace revolt (one of them even punched his fist through the wall to make a point) and consequently, they became more involved in controlling their own careers — particularly in the areas of image, marketing, performing and song writing.

Of course, this was the beginning of the end: record sales dropped, the viewership of their show dwindled, and the youth of America moved on. One of the last projects the band did before everything turned to complete mush was to star in a movie called Head, an unwieldy psychedelic cinematic monster of interest these days as a period piece and not much else.

But the opening number, a Goffin/King creation called “Porpoise Song” was quite interesting — a long, slow, oozing, reverb drenched affair. In other words, a not-so-distant relation to Lana Del Rey’s “Cruel World.” The lead singer, as he was on many Monkees’ tunes, was Mickey Dolenz. He was one of the actors who became a musician after he joined the band. But in all fairness, he taught himself how to play the drums well enough, and he really was a good singer anyway.

So, in both cases we have artists who have taken perhaps unwarranted heat over their perceived lack of musical talent, and then attempted to take steps to prove otherwise. As much as I love the Monkees, I’m going to have to go with Lana Del Rey as the artist with the stronger response to critics and the public at large. Signing on Auerbach as producer was a stroke of genius on somebody’s part. I think this album had the potential to come out flat, in which case Del Rey’s musical career might have effectively stopped dead in its tracks.

The Monkees, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. They knew their journey to the top of pop charts was done, and the movie would have to have been a surprise box office success to change that. It was a shot in the dark, and even the accompanying soundtrack boasts only a cult following compared to their first two or three mega-selling releases.

Let’s just hope that when Lana Del Rey gets around to making her third album, she doesn’t have to punch her fist through a wall.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • dav dan

    I can see a kinship here. I love Cruel World, I think it is an impressive effort and dizzying affair. The only thing that I find odd about your article is that you mention that Cruel World is okay despite its profanity. Does profanity automatically make a song’s validity questionable? You don’t seem to be unfamiliar with Lana Del Rey, so I would imagine you have heard her other songs which are no stranger to four letter words themselves. I’m shocked that Born To Die wasn’t slapped with a PA sticker as Paradise and Ultraviolence were. Despite her choice of words, it never comes off as gratuitous in her music.

    I also think Porpoise Song sounds more like I Am the Walrus by the Beatles. I’ve even confused the two before when hearing them from a distance. Cruel World may owe something to them, but more likely to psychedelia than any particular song. When describing it to people, I’ve always found that it sounds more Zepplin-esque.

  • max

    Ultraviolence isn’t the slightest bit radio friendly but it still debuted at the top of the charts. Months later it’s still in the top 20. People love LDR and I think UV turned out fantastic. I can’t wait to hear what she does next

  • Oolie Fürst

    FYI Ultraviolence is her 4th album, so she kinda didnt punch the wall, plus she sells well despite going against what is popular today

  • JC Mosquito

    I’m aware of three albums, but the first is a digital download only, and I’m old and grumpy enough to say that doesn’t really count, although I’m willing to admit maybe I oughtta keep pace with the modern world and count it. But I know a guy who has recorded 150 albums and they’re available for purchase online, and I don’t know if he’s sold many or any for that matter. Lana Del Rey also has an EP released, which doesn’t count as an album either.

    As for profanity – my feeling is that if it doesn’t fit into the context of the song, it’s not necessarily gratuitous, but maybe it’s only there for shock value and a warning label. Swearing doesn’t make you a grownup, dammit. :)

  • MHW

    “[W]hen I heard that Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced her latest release Ultraviolence, I was intrigued by how the producer/artist combination might work out…”

    Absolutely. I discovered Auerbach when his solo album, Keep It Hid, came out. I was impressed. I checked out some Black Keys and liked what I heard. I love what he did with the great Dr. John on Locked Down, so I was opened minded about Ultraviolence, despite having read some pretty harsh words directed at LDR. I have to say I like the tracks I have heard very much. Seems to me that the record is quite good. The quality bodes well for LDR and confirms that Auerbach has a lot to offer as a producer.