In between the transition of tracks one and two, I fire off three successive texts:
“Holy f#$%ing sh$t.
Nothing has ever wreaked havoc on my soul like this single track has done.
I am CRYING.”
My friend responds with the picture of a small child who appears to embody the world-weary disgruntlement of a man amid a mid-life crisis:
“Lana always chooses emotional violence.”
Does that make me a masochist, then, for loving every blow of Lana Del Rey’s spoken word poetry, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass? Perhaps. Suffice it to say, the audiobook format is emotionally eviscerating in the hands of Del Rey. Her voice, with the trademark siren’s-call edge, adds a layer of intimacy that ink and paper can’t quite capture. That, combined with the background music and evocative writing, makes for an experience like none other.
The Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass audiobook, released July 28, 2020, features just 14 poems read aloud by Del Rey. The hardcover release, coming at the end of this month, will feature over 30 original poems and original photography from Del Rey. Her first release since 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell album, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is distinct in both its audiobook format and intense vulnerability.
I walked into Violet Bent Backwards with the assumption that I knew what to expect; my mind still hasn’t walked out. Physically, I am here in my apartment — mentally? I’m in San Francisco Bay.
It is to the Bay that Del Rey takes us first: “I left my city for San Francisco.” Track one eases us in, like a graceful dip into water. The sounds of passing cars and lapping waves makes the California Dreamin’ feel all too real. Where the words provide the emotional ammunition, the addition of background music sets the scene. It’s as if Del Rey is weaving together a new world piece by piece. The sounds give way to the sights; they act as a thread of connection between poems, and a buffer between the raw, unedited moments that Del Rey brings forth.
Much like an album, the audiobook format provides for an uninterrupted experience, transitioning smoothly between tracks. Poems, like songs, are curated and structured with intent; short, brighter poems provide reprieve from heavier, soul-searching expositions. Del Rey, while still artistic and vulnerable in her music, breaks a new wall — heck, a new dimension — with her spoken-word poems. Words, and often silence, hang heavier. There is no chorus to fall back on, the only option is to move forward.
But rather than an ode to SanFran, track one is penned as a letter to home. “L.A. I’m from nowhere, who am I to love you? L.A. I’ve got nothing, who am I to love you when I’m feeling this way and I’ve got nothing to offer.” Filled with longing, Del Rey writes of the tempestuous relationship between ourselves and the places we call home.
Beneath the beauty of Del Rey’s written verse, there lies the steady melody of life (and notes) passing by all too quickly. With adoration, longing and conflict, Del Rey pleads to L.A. as a child might plead to a parent for love and understanding. “Home” becomes both a place of safety and refuge, as well as a space of oppression and painful experience. Track one speaks to how our origins mold us — sometimes too harshly.
Del Rey repeats, “Can I come home now?” This question rings out, a yearning for a return to the familiar, whether that be the comfort of home or the ugliness we know best. As she pleads permission, a harder confrontation arises — would our “home” take us back? Del Rey ends with a somber promise, “I’m yours if you’ll have me, but regardless, you’re mine.” Here, Del Rey asserts her connection to her home, her beautiful and cruel L.A., yet perhaps a more striking statement exists beneath: the claiming of herself fearlessly and without doubt.
Del Rey speaks to this dynamic of childhood, of L.A. as an equally nurturing and neglectful “parent,” and in turn she edges into a motherly role. Audiobooks recall the beginning and end of life. Some of our earliest memories are of parental figures reading aloud to us. In turn, as our bones grow old and eyes dull, we return to audiobooks for ease, and perhaps comfort, too. Her poems tell stories of her life. In this, Del Rey appears as a mother to us all, loving us where L.A. — or any other home — did not.
As a New Yorker with deep East Coast loyalty, even I found myself longing for the “Eucalyptus trees” and mountains of the West Coast. Del Rey’s true talent isn’t merely good writing or her creative format, but rather her ability to captivate your mind and make you see things through her eyes. From start to end, there was no distinction between my own feelings and those of Del Rey. Her voice, hypnotic and powerful, crafts a space undisturbed by time or conflict.
I still struggle to articulate why exactly Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass feels more encompassing than the traditional album — be it a Lana Del Rey classic, or anyone else. Every track is untitled, save for its identifying number. Unlike with songs, where the title often provides a hint of things to come, Del Rey’s poems remain small mysteries. Songs can be hypnotizing in their repetition, and there is a natural short-term gratification system built into traditional song structure: Listeners are rewarded with fun, melodic chorus for every verse they wade through. Spoken-word poetry, when done right, is like a hand reaching into your mind. If not for the steady lull of comfort, Del Rey could easily be part of a classic sci-fi brainwashing scene. The West Coast is better than the East Coast, L.A. is cooler than New York. I shudder to imagine such a reality.
From the Audiobook format, there is an underlying apprehension to this lack of control that I instinctively shy away from. There is no page to turn. There is no helpful Spotify sidebar that lets me know how popular each song is. There are no titles to clue me in on what to think, or how to feel. The end result is a deep dive into an alternate reality. I imagine this is what pulling on a VR headset feels like: alarming, deceptive and addictive.
In fact, the experience of listening to Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is wholly divorced from her music. Only track one has been released by Del Rey on Spotify; to listen to her poems, I was banished from the comfort of my musical “home” to the dark depths of the iPhone Books app (which I had to re-download). To be sure, Del Rey’s poetry is by no means a musical Trojan horse. It does, however, provide a tentative bridge between her musical audiences and the anticipation of hardcover release — a Big Girl serving of poems sans music.
The entirety of Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is, admittedly, dramatic. Even as I write praise, I recognize the unavoidable glamor and glitz — the “L.A” of it all. But isn’t that why we love Lana Del Rey? If it were not for the emotional poignancy of Del Rey’s voice, her poems may appear self-serving and pretentious. I’m left with the suspicion that no one else would ever be able to pull this off half as well.
Track two filters Del Rey’s voice with the static of an old recording or scuffed vinyl disc. Jazzy saxophone riffs weave in between verse and stanza. We are left to rest on the shores of Vintage Beach, Nostalgia, U.S.A. As this sensory journey continues, her poems grow more dreamlike. The dam-break of the first two tracks give way to an interlude of shorter poems, as if Del Rey is taking a breath of air. At one point, I grew so lost in Del Rey’s soft-spoken words that I forget where — and when — I was. My trance ended to the final beat of track four, where Del Rey whispered “You don’t want to be forgotten, you just want to disappear.”
Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is a little psychedelic, too. For some, the lack of steadying audio structure (the anchor of the verse and chorus) may be too distracting. As enjoyable as Lana’s spoken word poetry is, it is not interchangeable with her songs. Her poems are an experience. They’re a character study of a woman who perhaps seems as intimately close as a friend, and then as distant as the moon.
As such, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass is a fantastic adventure into something strange, something new. For the poetry-wary, Del Rey strikes a comfortable balance between storytelling (moments and lessons from her life) and thematic, exploratory poems that are begging to be picked apart word by word. It’s perfect for a cloudy day, curled up in a quiet room, or the background track to some gritty, old-fashioned self-reflection. For writers and artists like myself, it’s like a straight IV of creative inspiration threaded into a pulsating vein.