As her pop-star peers reinvent themselves every other year, Lana Del Rey focuses on the refinement of her songwriting, sharpening one unique musical idea over time. Where others may express growth by expanding outward, taking bigger risks by dabbling unexpectedly in different genres and mediums, Lana gets a little better at being Lana every year. In a sense, this makes her predictable. You could hazard a guess about what the new album will sound like and what the new video will look like before you ever press “play.” It’s going to serve bleak, Nick Cave–ish chamber music, just sweet enough to render the darkness enticing. It’s going to be visualized through bleary Americana that almost seems to satirize the real thing, the way the unintentional ’60s kitsch of Valley of the Dolls is weaponized in the gauche Russ Meyer sorta-remake Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s going to conjure the nightmarish underside to the American dream; it’s going to show how nostalgia favors the good, how memory fails us, how weird and terrible things always are, and how to rise above it all. What made the journey from Born to Die to here an intriguing one is how Lana Del Rey has whittled uncompromising, jarringly direct music out of the often overwrought melodrama of her earliest songs, leaving a little excess behind at each turn. What remains is the moving melody and emotion that older songs like “National Anthem” used to drown in the thick arrangements and beats that kept her records in contention on pop charts and radio. What she has lost in hit potential, she has recouped in craft; 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! was a staggering achievement.
The last album’s skeleton crew returns for this month’s latest, Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Again, Rockwell producer Jack Antonoff supplies delicate instrumentation and production, continuing to assist his pop collaborators in finding joy in stillness — as he did with Lorde on Melodrama and with Taylor Swift on the back-to-back tearjerkers folklore and evermore — while revealing restraint to be a more interesting aspect of his creative tool kit than the signature bluster of Bleachers, fun., and Taylor’s Reputation. Rick Nowels, who co-wrote and co-produced “Summertime Sadness,” “High by the Beach,” “Lust for Life,” and many more Lana classics, accompanies the singer once more on the sparse, skeletal “Yosemite.” What sets Chemtrails apart from its predecessor is a hint of lightness, the lilt in the drums driving “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” the swelling sweetness of “Wild at Heart,” the burst of harmony in the chorus of “Dark But Just a Game.” Rockwell was, in part, a musing on Golden State horror, haunted by serial killers, deceased rock stars, and “beautiful losers,” where our protagonist’s big dream is to escape the bustle of cities, to seek a quiet life with “a kid and two cats in the yard” while the getting was still good. That album’s itch to escape Los Angeles bled into the writing collected last year in Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, Lana’s first book of poetry and spoken-word album. “Everything’s burnt here / There’s no escaping it,” she laments in “The Land of 1,000 Fires.” In “SportsCruiser,” she’s taking flying and sailing lessons to clear her head; in “LA Who Am I to Love You?,” she tries (and ultimately fails) to make San Francisco work for her instead. On Chemtrails, she’s exploring America, pining for Oklahoma and Arkansas in “Tulsa Jesus Freak” and for Nebraska in “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” The opener, “White Dress,” details an eventful trip to Florida.
Chemtrails is a subtle scaling back of the already sparse sonics of Rockwell. Where the last album would build from gossamer acoustic melodies to booming beats, and swell to triumphant rock-and-roll climaxes, Chemtrails deals arrangements that still feel hushed with the volume all the way up. The gorgeous multitracked guitars in “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” don’t peek out of the mix until the song’s final seconds. The sax-rock breakdown in “Dance Till We Die” comes as a shock, like a playback of Joni Mitchell’s stark Blue interrupted with a cut from the lush Court and Spark. (Lana’s “For Free” is faithfully delicate, though backing vocals from Weyes Blood and Zella Day help flesh it out.) The album’s understated drums are almost always live, barring the heartbeat thump in “Let Me Love You Like a Woman.” “Tulsa Jesus Freak” plays its hip-hop beat as lightly as a Ka song would. Chemtrails ebbs and flows like post-rock elsewhere, bubbling up slowly and settling into sated silence. This makes it something of a demanding listen. Chemtrails draws you into a different speed, a distended sense of time and sound. These songs are slow but not necessarily long, bare-bones but not quite empty. Without the last album’s subtle pop flourishes, this one can feel suffocatingly dark, a tougher pill to swallow than Rockwell, though a close reading of the lyrics reveals less despairing stories than the sadness pervading these arrangements would suggest.
These characters are on the mend, changing their lives, and finding love, success, and a sense of community. When the penultimate song, “Dance Till We Die,” arrives, the waitress dreaming of fame in “White Dress” now calls Stevie Nicks and Joan Baez real-life friends. In “Yosemite,” the most depressing-sounding thing on this album, the singer relishes feeling appreciated and understood. The breakup detailed in “Breaking Up Slowly” is presented as a painful necessity, a stitch in time mitigating greater future emotional distress. The title track celebrates friends and loved ones. “Wild at Heart” and “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” come to terms with the idea that there is no singular life path appropriate for everyone, that it’s okay if being who you are throws other people off. “I’m not unhinged or unhappy,” Lana sings at one point in the title track, “I’m just wild.” What’s fascinating about this collection of songs is that its perspective switches unexpectedly between autobiographical and story songs. She actually did dance at an Afro-Caribbean two-step joint with Joan. The rejection of fame in “Dark But Just a Game” seems like an understanding gleaned from being a celebrity who has caught her fair share of smoke. (Did the Men in Music Business Conference of “White Dress” really happen?) In “Breaking Up Slowly,” Lana slides into the perspective of the late country icon Tammy Wynette, who was married to George Jones while the legendary singer-songwriter battled addictions that famously drove him to commandeer the lawn mower and take the highway to a bar after she hid his car keys. The slipperiness of this album’s point of view, coupled with its unique guest vocalists and closing Joni Mitchell cover, makes it feel like a monument to free, unfettered womanhood.
The steadfast resolve that has sharpened Lana’s music over time has sometimes made her unpopular off-record, though. The flap in January about how many people of color are featured on the Chemtrails Over the Country Club album art could happen only to a star whose use of classic American iconography has made people itch in the past. Her statement in response to the criticism only made it worse; telling people you’ve dated rappers when your wokeness comes into question doesn’t make any of this go away. Last spring, when she complained that she hadn’t been afforded the same considerations as a songwriter as other stars “with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc.,” it was perceived as a slight against her peers, and fans of Beyoncé, FKA Twigs, and others named in the post took umbrage. Lana’s art is, in many respects, a wry commentary on American whiteness, and that sparks suspicion and distrust in people who don’t see a distance between the singer and what she’s pushing back at in her songs. The gap between how Lana sees herself and how she’s seen by others was most profound this January when she suggested that the attack on the Capitol and the terror of the Trump years could force positive change, and some people wondered if she was secretly a supporter, while many more felt the comment was made in poor taste. Her response on Twitter to a Complex post about the incident — “It’s fucked up. You know I’m real” — was telling.
The lesson of the Capitol attack, of small-business owners revealed as insurrectionists and of horrified neighbors and exes turning in rioters to police, is that maybe nobody really knows anyone. If your aim is to do good, you must live with the fact that not everyone will read your intentions as such. Lashing out at your critics only invites more drama. If you don’t give a shit, don’t give a shit. It’s frustrating hearing Lana sing about the weight of fame in “Dance Till We Die” in the face of avoidable controversy. It could be lighter for her if she adapted a bit and explained herself less. But keeping the same energy is core to the Lana Del Rey experience. The paradox remains alluring.