Few artists have experienced the unique duality that Lana del Rey did in the first few months of the 2020s. Fresh off critical smash Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana was a first time Grammy Album and Song of the Year nominee and topped the year-end lists of all the publications that scorned her moody melodrama in the early 2010s. But what could’ve been a simple and victorious comeback was clouded by a series of controversial statements on social media demanding recognition for her influence in pop music while questioning her Black and Latina contemporaries for finding success singing about “being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc.” Her irredeemable choice to don a mesh mask at a book signing was the icing on the proverbial cake. How can the artist who made the crown jewel album of 2019 Pitchfork lists be the same out-of-touch figure accused of being a “Karen” on Twitter?
It’s no question that Lana del Rey is one of the most polarizing figures in pop music. She has navigated fame in her own relentlessly confusing way since the Born to Die Tumblr days and nearly a decade later, still resists standard typifications of internet culture. At her core, she is an artist deeply in touch with her own romantic construction of reality. Some people call that delusion and some people call it genius. But the more work she adds to her discography, the more Lana del Rey has proven she can be both.
Her newest release Chemtrails Over the Country Club is another meditative retreat into her fantasy; this time, the backdrop of choice is the world of gritty singer-songwriters, dusty road trips, and the “Men in Music Business Conference.” It’s clear Lana is presenting her current work as more “authentic” than her earlier albums, and it’s undeniable that she remains one of the most poetic songwriters in pop today. But ultimately, Chemtrails is the sleepier version of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, lacking the bite that made the latter electric. In one sense, Chemtrails is fan service, a pure distillation of all the elements that made Lana del Rey the captain of a cult in the first place. But in another, it’s an effort to establish herself as her generation’s strongest yet strangest songwriter- a message “for the culture,” as she might put it herself. She’s already announced another album (Rock Candy Sweet is due in June), so there’s not much time for Chemtrails to settle into the overtrodden Lana del Rey discourse before it’s overshadowed by another chapter.
Lana tends to get swept up in the mythology of her chosen universe, but as she’s gotten older, her fantasies feel less melodramatic. At some points, they can even feel a little cliche, derived from the wall decor section of Hobby Lobby (“Not All Who Wander Are Lost” and lead single “Let Me Love You Like a Woman”). But some tracks like “Yosemite” romanticize stability and genuine human partnership. Notably, “Yosemite” is a discarded track from 2017’s Lust for Life. Including it on Chemtrails is a stroke of brilliance, as it stands out as one of the most “adult” Lana del Rey lyrics in her discography (“I showed up for you, you showed up for me/We did it for the right reasons”)- lyrics that earlier versions of Lana del Rey would have never been able to deliver convincingly.
Perhaps the song that buys into Lana’s own self-mythologizing the most is “Wild at Heart.” It samples “How to disappear” and “Love song” from Norman Fucking Rockwell and is a lyrical manifesto of the Lana universe. She escapes the fires of Calabasas, tells stories at the bar over jack and cokes, and tells her lover that in order to be with her, they must accept her unquenchable inner freedom. It’s bold to reincorporate a pair of recent tracks on a new project, and though its melody is pleasant and lyrics are strong, it’s ultimately one of the biggest misses of the record.
But for someone who has made it clear she believes she is due more credit for her influence, she’s not afraid to pay tribute to those who came before her (it should be noted, given her recent controversies, that she does not reference any Black musicians). Everyone from Kings of Leon to Joni Mitchell is name-dropped on this album, and it’s clear she’s trying to establish herself in the iconic singer-songwriter lineage. But not every song is so idealistic about the life of the great American songbird. ”Dark But Just a Game” was inspired by a “don’t meet your heroes” encounter with an older musician at a 2020 Oscars party (“So I’m not gonna change/I’ll stay the same/No rose left on the vines/Don’t even want what’s mine/Much less the fame”). It’s a cynical take on the inevitable side effect of being a popular artist and ultimately sees Lana rejecting the consequences of notoriety. According to her, they’re inconsequential to her craft.
Musically, Chemtrails is a sleepy folk record produced by eternal man-of-the-hour Jack Antonoff. There are whispers of pop and hip-hop influences on tracks like “Tulsa Jesus Freak” and “Dark But Just a Dream,” but its strongest moments are when Lana fully embraces the retro sound she’s been borrowing from for years. “Breaking Up Slowly,” co-written and sung with country singer Nikki Lane, is written about the saga of Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Wretchedly raw and one of the standout melodies on the albums, this track is one of the few times when Lana opting for simplicity truly delivers. Vocally, Lana is especially dynamic, decorating tracks like standout album opener “White Dress” with ornate falsetto can air on the side of irritating. But she shows a new level of vocal prowess on this project, and at least she doesn’t sound bored.
The closing track is a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” featuring Zella Day and Weyes Blood. There’s something striking about the choice to end the album not only with a cover track, but with another artist’s voice (Weyes Blood takes the last verse). It’s a last ditch-effort to prove to the listener that Chemtrails isn’t a show of musical ego but an attempt to secure a musical legacy. Some might be convinced, but many won’t. Like all of Lana’s online activity in recent years, Chemtrails has a message that’s clouded by strains of bitterness and delusion. But as always, her specific brand of lyricism is unmatched, her level of creativity is admirable, and her ability to immerse herself in an aesthetic universe she doesn’t belong to is striking.
The question then becomes: how long can Lana keep this up? Plenty of music fans, including some of Lana’s longtime loyalists, have grown tired of her antics and acknowledge that although Lana had an indisputable influence on pop music, her shelf life in the ever-shifting genre is limited. But it’s clear Lana isn’t coming up for air any time soon.
At the heart of Chemtrails is a disdain for being perceived and therefore misunderstood, a theme which seems antithetical to her controversial antics. She demands recognition for her impact on Instagram but yearns for anonymity and stability in her lyrics. If you buy into Lana’s yearning construction of reality, Chemtrails reads as a well-constructed if somewhat lackluster folk record that mythologizes the experience of the American singer-songwriter. But if you’re on the outside looking in, it’s just another chapter in the confusing book of Lana’s role in pop culture.
Chemicals Under the Country Club is out now.
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