“So I just want to say, nobody gets to tell your story except for you,” Lana Del Rey said in a May 2020 Instagram video. “Even if that means it’s kind of messy, like this, along the way.” The video was one of her multiple long-winded defenses after calling out a largely Black group of pop stars for expressing their sexuality in their music. Her initial comments preceded the announcement of two book projects, including a spoken-word poetry collection Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, and an album, then set for September 2020. In the middle of that defense video, she revealed the title: Chemtrails Over the Country Club.
After a delay (which she attributed to the global slowdown in vinyl production), the album is now set to come out March 19, but it doesn’t feel like much else has changed. Almost immediately after debuting the cover art, featuring a vintage-styled photograph of her and her friends, Del Rey defended herself against alleged criticisms that the group pictured wasn’t racially diverse. “Yes, there are people of color on this record’s picture and that’s all I’ll say about that,” she wrote, going on to name individual friends. The next day, she explained her comments to host Annie Mac when debuting the title track on BBC Radio 1. She also opined on the recent insurrection at the Capitol, saying that President Donald Trump “doesn’t know that he’s inciting a riot … because he’s got delusions of grandeur.” But when the Black-aimed culture publication Complex wrote in a headline, “Lana Del Rey Doesn’t Believe Donald Trump Purposely Incited Capitol Riot,” she singled them out on Twitter. “Thanks for the cool soundbite taken out of context,” she wrote in one tweet. “It’s fucked up. You know I’m real,” she added in another. “Whoever wrote this is a genuine piece of shit.” It was the same defense as before, in a slightly different package: that her critics didn’t understand what she had to say because they just weren’t listening to all of it. (She’d also used that logic to lash out at the media before, when she targeted NPR music critic Ann Powers for a review of her 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell!)
On “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” the song, Del Rey doesn’t have much profound to say. It’s one of her classic dreamy love songs, set amid the high-class decadence she frequents with an added layer of suburban duty. The titular chemtrails only color the scene — really, there’s nothing to escape, not the elementary-school obligations or the fine jewelry. “We laugh about nothing as the summer gets cool,” Del Rey sings, encapsulating the space the song itself occupies. She sways and lilts through the delicate rhythm, eventually finding her way toward a glitchy bridge that takes over the entire song. Producer Jack Antonoff, who helms the new album, as he did her last, seems to have taken a few notes from his folklore and evermore collaborator Aaron Dessner; the track sounds as crisp as one of the musical “sketches” Dessner contributed to Taylor Swift’s projects. That makes “Chemtrails” more interesting than the middle-of-the-road lead single “Let Me Love You Like a Woman,” but doesn’t mean it’s any more substantive. The way Antonoff’s production swells to take over the rest of the song also recalls previous album Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s epic standout “Venice Bitch.” But while that song built toward its fate, on “Chemtrails,” it just feels like a flourish, as gilded as the world Del Rey inhabits in the lyrics.
NFR! shined the most when it had stakes. When Rolling Stone lauded the songs on that album as “epitaphs for the entire country,” it wasn’t an overstatement — whether remarking on romance or the state of the world, Del Rey finally used the wit and flair she always wielded for something clear, new, and essential. She wasn’t just channeling Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, she was challenging herself to meet the standards of the once-in-a-generation songwriting that her heroes set. But even Dylan lost his way, multiple times, throughout his career. Unlike Dylan, though, it’s not just going to take a good comeback album for Del Rey to reclaim her NFR!-era praise. She’s going to need to listen to the rest of the generation she once supposedly spoke for — otherwise she’ll just continue speaking for herself.