Review: Lana Del Rey sings of escape — from L.A.? pandemic? fame? — on her dreamy new masterpiece
You can’t fire Lana Del Rey; she quits.
Months after a cascading series of attempted cancellations — here she was centering her white privilege; here she was wearing a mesh face mask in the middle of a pandemic; here she was insisting she’s obviously not racist because she’s had rappers for boyfriends — pop music’s most glamorous headline-maker is back with a riveting new album about exiting the limelight to find a simpler place where the haters can’t get her down.
Again and again on “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” which dropped Thursday night, Del Rey sings of casting off her renown as though it were a heavy coat. She dreams of leaving Los Angeles, the adopted home that figured so prominently on 2019’s “Norman F— Rockwell!,” for “a little piece of heaven” in Arkansas or Nebraska. She describes doing the laundry and washing her hair with the kind of breathy sensuality she used to employ while singing about getting high by the beach.
Singer-songwriter H.E.R. won the Grammy Award for song of the year. The next morning, she was nominated for an Oscar for original song.
In the LP’s piano-ballad opener, “White Dress,” the 35-year-old even looks back fondly to her pre-stardom days as a struggling waitress: “I wasn’t famous, just listening to Kings of Leon,” she sings — an oddly poignant indication of how eager she is to get out from under the microscope.
Del Rey’s unfolding PR crisis, which began in May with an Instagram post about how she’s treated differently than other female pop stars — most of those she named, including Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, were women of color — closely followed the rapturous reception of “Norman F— Rockwell!,” which earned best-of-2019 reviews and a Grammy nomination for album of the year and paved the way for the publication of a real-deal book of poetry by the singer.
The whiplash, then, was no doubt severe. Yet, in fact it’s unclear how attentively Del Rey tracks her perception, or at least how seriously she takes it all. In interviews she talks about living a happily basic life offstage; she says she likes to go to Starbucks and to brunch with her girlfriends — not exactly an image in alignment with the themes of glamour and danger that run through her music.
So it’s possible that the conspicuous Midwestern settings on “Chemtrails” are merely the product of a search for COVID-free open spaces or her recent relationship with Sean “Sticks” Larkin, an officer in the Tulsa Police Department who told the New York Times that he and Del Rey “went to Target” and “Super Bowl partied” with his “law enforcement friends and their spouses.” (The couple have since broken up; Del Rey is now said to be engaged to Clayton Johnson, a singer from Modesto.)
This is the tricky thing about analyzing Del Rey’s records. Since she emerged a decade ago with “Video Games” — an instant-classic meditation on modern celebrity that touched off countless debates about her artistic authenticity — the singer has seemed alternately like the most and least media-savvy musician in pop.
More than once in the past year, as she set flame to her accumulated goodwill, you could wonder if she actually knew what she was doing — that maybe her baffling moves were part of some larger creative project about the diseased American soul in the age of Donald Trump (whom, by the way, she appeared in a radio chat to absolve of his complicity in January’s Capitol riot).
What’s inarguable is that she’s become one of the finest songwriters of her generation, with a lyrical and melodic flair that encourages an emotional investment in her music well beyond whatever it reflects of her real life. On “Chemtrails,” her singing reaches a new peak as well; she’s never inspired as much empathy as she does moving between her airy head voice and her sultry chest voice in these vividly detailed songs about escape and loss and memory.
Working again with Jack Antonoff, who produced “Norman F— Rockwell!,” Del Rey invites comparisons to Taylor Swift’s double-down approach on 2020’s “Folkore” and “Evermore” (which Antonoff also had a hand in): Where each of the singer’s previous records took up a distinct sonic character — from the trip-hop of 2012’s “Born to Die” to the garage rock of 2014’s “Ultraviolence” to the slow-mo torch songs of 2015’s “Honeymoon” — this one stays right in the gentle psych-folk zone that she and Antonoff devised for its predecessor.
But if the sound is familiar — think of the very sweet spot triangulated by Sandy Denny, k.d. lang and the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album — the scenarios can still flatten you, as in the gorgeous “Wanderlust,” about somebody defending her impulse to hit the road, and “Wild at Heart,” in which Del Rey draws a line connecting generations of relentlessly examined women from Princess Diana to Kim Kardashian:
I left Calabasas, escaped all the ashes, ran into the dark
And it made me wild at heart
The cameras have flashes, they cause the car crashes, but I’m not a star
If you love me, you love me ’cause I’m wild at heart
“Breaking Up Slowly” is a rootsy duet with alt-country up-and-comer Nikki Lane, who rhymes “life of regret” with “Tammy Wynette;” “Yosemite” puts more thoughts of the old days over a haunted acoustic groove. In “Dance Til We Die,” which begins as a bleary last-call lament before suddenly erupting into a funky ’70s-rock strut, Del Rey further populates the lineage she introduces in “Wild at Heart” with shoutouts to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Stevie Nicks and Courtney Love (who “almost burned down my home,” per Del Rey’s recollection of some you-had-to-be-there L.A. evening).
Then she closes the album with a stunning rendition of Mitchell’s “For Free” that she shares, as she did live a year and a half ago at the Hollywood Bowl, with two of her present-day ladies of the canyon: Zella Day and Weyes Blood.
“Me, I play for fortunes and those velvet curtain calls,” Del Rey sings, comparing herself a bit shamefully to a street musician plying his trade for nothing.
Forgiveness she can ask for; her need for attention may prove harder to shake.
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