Leading up to the release of “Norman F-cking Rockwell!” Lana Del Rey was one of only three women whose album spent at least 300 weeks on the Billboard 200. Critics who did not take her seriously before were now calling her “one of America’s greatest living songwriters.”
At a time when she was finally being accepted by the naysayers of her craft, she published an Instagram post in May 2020, where she defended herself against early criticisms of her music glamorizing abuse and promiscuity.
To emphasize her argument, she listed multiple artists of color, which people viewed as tone-deaf and unnecessary. Some believed that she situated herself as the victim, when these artists of color face racism and sexism at a highly public scale. Others claimed her remark was downright racist, and pointed back to when she used iconography that romanticizes an America of the past. Today, it’s hard to be confronted with grainy images of the American flag, Elvis Presley and patriotic parties in the Hamptons without feeling the weight of a violently racist history.
The post demonstrated an important truth about the music industry and misogyny as a whole. A truth that is damaging to be bombarded with as a young artist: the public simply cannot handle female complexity. Narratives of the female perspective are only digestible when their portrayals of romance exist in a binary of good and bad. Lana Del Rey’s seventh project “Chemtrails Over The Country Club,” is a continuation of what she’s always done: reject these constraints, regardless of how it may disturb others.
You can hear this in the album’s stunning opener, “White Dress,” where she sings of being “down at the men in music business conference” at the age of 19, where she “felt seen.” With any knowledge of the industry, these lyrics may conjure the image of a room full of suits, basking in their own weaponized dominance. Yet, she sings it at a feverish whisper and a smile, like she’s been itching to tell us a blissful memory. Where someone finds their power is specific to themselves. Even if the dynamic seems troubling, artists deserve the space to tell truthful stories without the expectations of creating work, only when it is morally ideal.
“White Dress” is also the first indication of how producer Jack Antonoff’s style shifts on “Chemtrails.” On 2019’s “Norman F-cking Rockwell!,” his instrumentals were lush and sweeping. Take the lengthy outro of “Venice B-tch,” which flows in and out of various hard and soft textures without ever losing steam. Del Rey’s vocals sit right at the front of the mix, almost ear-piercing at times, like that first, throaty “sun stare.”
Since Antonoff and Del Rey are such a power duo, it’s entirely recognizable when he’s not involved. Despite being in a similarly hushed space as the rest of the tracks, “Yosemite” is pleasant enough, as its origins in the recording sessions for “Lust For Life” stand out. It was recorded five or six years ago, when Del Rey’s voice was younger and her masters were drenched in excessive reverb.
There are times when the tracks would benefit from being scaled back even further. While the arrangement of the album-closing cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” is rich — particularly the warm saxophones — it lacks the raw brilliance of what Mitchell did with just her voice and a piano. Of the three artists featured on the track, it ends up being Natalie Mering’s Weyes Blood who steals the show — whose round and grounded voice sounds most comfortable in the material. Altogether, the sentiment is moving: three women showing their appreciation for a legendary singer-songwriter who transcended her male peers and paved the way for other female musicians unafraid of revealing their “complexity.”
Lana Del Rey and Joni Mitchell’s relationships to California continue to be compared. “For Free” is a song from “Ladies of the Canyon,” an era-defining album of the 70s’ Los Angeles folk scene, and “Dance Till We Die,” which erupts into a bluesy bridge direct from the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967) — but maybe Del Rey is channeling a different era of Mitchell’s career: the cross-country meditation of 1976’s “Hejira.”
The album’s scattered nature doesn’t capture the impact of “Norman F-cking Rockwell!” where she depicted Southern California on the brink of the apocalypse. However, “Chemtrails” is a body of work that indicates a period of transition. She’s tempted by the myth of California. On “Wild at Heart,” she wants to see pictures of her partner’s “pretty face on Sunset Boulevard” and “smoke cigarettes to understand the smog” –– but she also yearns to depart, “[leave] Calabasas” and “[escape] all the ashes.” Even the title itself is a reference to David Lynch’s 1997 film of the same name about two lovers on the run. And off she went.
These ventures into sonic exploration often really pay off, like in “Dark But Just A Game,” when, in the chorus, something happens with her voice and the guitar, completely isolated and dry as they embody the blasé attitude of 90s’ alternative.
The song is a strong declaration about fame from a woman many years into her career — someone who is pained by what she’s seen it do to her heroes. She’s recently spoken about how she thought of quitting music at the time of Amy Winehouse’s death, but takes that pain to learn the lessons they could not, and back out of the life-threatening game.
This isn’t to say that one version is more “authentic” than the other: that conversation has been trite for years now, and both whiteness, American-ness and femininity feel like extensions of a character who is the transubstantiation of these very ideas. The title track and its images of country clubs, jewels and swimming pools feel like a parody of the privileged lifestyle she sung about a decade ago, repurposed to say something somber about romanticizing memory. The references are less aggressive flag-waving, but the album’s fascination with the quiet corners of the country’s vast center prove that Del Rey continues to possess an idealized view of America.
She characterizes the game as performatively progressive. The game would expect a Biden-Harris cookie making Instagram post, or a performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool doing their best fireworks show at the closing of the inauguration. Instead, she went on BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac and stated inchoate and disjointed thoughts about Trump, the Capitol riot and sociopathy.
Lana Del Rey is done with the bullsh-t. She’s livestreaming mid-bite at Denny’s. She’s making artwork for her singles out of selfies. She’s writing poetry about vaping. She’s wholly unfiltered. She says derogatory things without thinking, which lead to one controversy after another. Even though her music is consistent, these incidents distract from her music. With the rocky rollercoaster image she’s portrayed herself as, any future listener will have to question whether they want to get on the ride.
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