Lana Del Rey Chemtrails
Photo: Still from "Chemtrails Over the Country Club" video

Lana Del Rey Revels in Minimal Palette, Finds Freedom From Longstanding Persona on ‘Chemtrails’

Chemtrails uses a more minimal and nuanced palette than earlier albums, Lana Del Rey distancing herself throughout from her familiar persona and stylistics.

Lana Del Rey introduced her singular persona with her second album, 2012’s Born to Die. She expanded and dramatized that persona with 2014’s Ultraviolence and 2015’s Honeymoon – a mix of melancholic sexuality, tabloid-inflected glamour, and bohemian refinement. Additionally, and more critically, she has displayed, throughout her oeuvre, including 2017’s underrated Lust for Life and 2019’s overrated Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a knack for crafting melodic hooks, an attunement to dream pop atmospherics, and assisted by various producers, an appreciation for instrumental forays that broaden a project’s sonic palette.

Her latest album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, opens with “White Dress”, Del Rey’s reverb-washed and mercurial falsetto accompanied by a sparse piano. “When I was a waitress wearing a white dress / … I was a waitress working the nightshift / You were my man,” she sings. The song epitomizes Del Rey’s ability to navigate regret and disappointment while evincing what might be dubbed a Dionysian equanimity. As a result, she rarely occurs as one-dimensionally depressed but rather ecstatically sorrowful, her grief infused with enchantment, her enchantment textured by grief.

“I’m on the run with you, my sweet love / There’s nothing wrong contemplating God / Under the chemtrails over the country club,” she moans on the title track, conjuring the experience of riding in a car with the windows down, philosophizing about God and the nature of existence while chemtrails pervade the sky, the planet perishing as humanity’s consumeristic and distractive narratives continue to unfold. The video, produced by BRTHR, hints at socio-economic and environmental critiques before segueing into a “Thriller”-and-B-horror-genre-indebted dreamscape replete with images of metamorphosis, cleansing fire, and fem-vampirism.

On “Tulsa Jesus Freak”, a droning and synthy-sounding bass accompanied by a shuffling electro-beat bolsters Del Rey’s sirenic vocal. It’s an intriguing use of chamber-pop and neo-trip-hop approaches reminiscent of earlier work, particularly tracks from Born to Die. “I come from a small town far away / I only mention it because I’m ready to leave LA,” she proclaims on “Let Me Love You Like a Woman”. She references 1950s-era counter-culturalism and Hollywood-hyped iconography (Bettie Page meets Donna Reed) while asserting wistful confidence that brings to mind Melissa Etheridge’s “You Can Sleep While I Drive”. Del Rey’s voice is layered at different points throughout the song, enhancing the etheric effect. The song’s melody is simple, stark, and hypnotic. Lyrically, the piece merges the exhilaration of being on the road, the desire to have a new start in life (no matter how old you are), and the perennial wish to forge a romance that will last forever (“take you to infinity”).

Part of what is so achingly compelling about Del Rey’s music is the doomed innocence that undergirds so many of her songs. The melody on “Dark But Just a Game” wafts through wispy beats and ambient accents. “While the whole world is crazy, we’re getting high in the parking lot,” she sings. Halfway through, the piece adopts a part R&B, part downtempo feel – consider if, in an alternate realm, Portishead’s Dummy had been produced by Smokey Robinson and released by Motown – a trancey groove wrapped around Del Rey’s plaintive vocal. One of her more sober tracks, “Dark But Just a Game”, shows the artist plunging into a direct study of impermanence. The song’s delicate melody strikes one as a metaphor for everything beautiful that is also, by nature, evanescent.

“Seasons may change, but we won’t change / Isn’t it strange how different we are from all of our friends,” she sings on “Yosemite”, again addressing the yen for immutable love while delving into folk and folk-rock territory. “I do it for fun, I do it for free / I do it for you / You did it for me / We did it for the right reasons,” she continues, acknowledging how all relationships are dismantled by time, regardless of their intensity or level of devotion. Again, it’s Del Rey’s and, in this case, repeat-producer Jack Antonoff’s vocal, musical, and lyrical pairing of opposite yet complimentary energies (specifically the Wounded and Ecstatic Dancer archetypes. In Enneagram terms, the Tragic Romantic and Enthusiast points) that brings range, depth, and irresistible tension to the song.

On “Breaking Up Slowly”, Del Rey references the famously stormy relationship between Tammy Wynette and George Jones. “It’s hard to be lonely / But it’s the right thing to do,” she concludes, accepting that solitude is preferable to dysfunctional love, which may have epic values in a poetic context but is less appealing as a regular diet. The album closes with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”, from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, Del Rey emulating Mitchell’s bohemian-folk annunciations. Featuring guest appearances by Zella Day and Weyes Blood, the track is an odd pick for a closer, as it doesn’t add significantly to the sequence and isn’t representative of the project at large. Consequently, a notably cogent album ends on a somewhat discordant note.

That aside, most of the 11 songs on Chemtrails are melodically and vocally substantive, replete with sensual hooks and evocative images. Chemtrails makes use of a more minimal and nuanced palette than earlier albums, Del Rey distancing herself, throughout the set and to varying degrees, from her longstanding persona and familiar stylistics. In this way, she avoids collapsing into formulas or self-caricature, continuing to explore new aesthetic possibilities.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters