This review of Lana Del Rey‘s new album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, is somewhat laggard, coming as it does two months after its release. It’s probably better to have waited, though, for two reasons. One is that when a musician is as famous and newsmaking as Del Rey is—in common parlance, a brand—it’s hard to hear the actual music until the hype passes and the headlines change. Two months have been sufficient: Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is already in eclipse—not by Del Rey herself but by her father, whose debut album, Lost at Sea, is due out in barely a week.
The other, more significant reason to have held off writing about Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (a very long title befitting a very long album) is that it takes a while for its music to sink in—or, to put it in terms better suited to its theme, which Del Rey borrows from Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Think of the tunnel under Ocean Boulevard as Lana Del Rey herself: “handmade beauty sealed up by two man-made walls,” as she sings in the title song (no doubt she means “man-made” in a pointedly gendered sense). Listen for when she calls attention to the exact timestamp in Harry Nilsson‘s “Don’t Forget Me” (2:05) when his voice cracks.
Light isn’t exactly what gets in through this crack. It just makes Del Rey “wish I had a friend like him”, but the way she interpolates Nilsson’s song into her own—as she also does “Hotel California” in an adjacent verse—is canny. She uses his title, “Don’t Forget Me”, as a pre-chorus refrain, and we end up hearing the line repeatedly until Nilsson’s original has all but disappeared. Del Rey, whose career-making debut single “Video Games” made central use of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”, has all but mastered his kind of full-fisted borrowing. She’s a true music person, steeped in its history and emotionally bound up in it, from the ancestral folkies of her dad’s era right up to the present moment.
As for her actual music, it also expresses Del Rey’s brand virtually regardless of her collaborators from album to album: big, long, slow, woozy, densely orchestrated, and arranged songs that recall an earlier (but imaginary) musical era. Some bear a more singular stamp than others, and her career-making “Video Games” is undoubtedly a classic. Mostly, though, any given song of hers is at least partly to sustain “vibes”, as a friend of mine summed up the Del Rey sound.
Del Rey’s persona and phenomenon are more complicated. She knows this and delights in it. In a recent Interview magazine conversation with Billie Eilish, Del Rey told Eilish about the many “think pieces […] 60-page articles about me being the face of feminine submission and the pro-domestic whatever”. Anyone who’s paying attention should be able to see that Lana Del Rey the “construct” (to use a think-piece term) is both an enactment and a critique of feminine submission and the pro-domestic whatever. The think-pieces are built into the character. In any case, the young woman who cuts my hair at my local salon school (and who allowed that she was not a Del Rey fan) also cut through the Del Rey tangle in two words: “dark femininity”, she said, identifying the brand; and as for its audience, “pretty girls who smoke and have daddy issues and unresolved trauma.” Done.
Naturally, one of Del Rey’s songs is called “Daddy Issues”. She’s way ahead of us, even when she isn’t trying to be—although the new GQ feature about her daddy’s imminent album doesn’t suggest much in the way of unresolved trauma between father and daughter (who worked together on his Lost at Sea). Indeed, quite a bit of Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is about Del Rey’s immediate and extended family. Not to fall into the trap, but a think-piece could be written about the way that “Lana Del Rey” seems to be, increasingly, an alter ego the woman born Elizabeth Grant created for the primary purpose of gaining enough remove from her family to see and sing about them more clearly—and thus bring them closer to her. The very first song is called “The Grants” and opens with a great line: “I’m gonna take / Mine of you with me.” It’s great because Del Rey cannily waits two full minutes before clearing up what the “mine” refers to: memories.
Whether the Grants cause the cracks that allow the light to get in, or whether they are the darkness through which the light gets in, or whether they are the light—some of all of the above, most likely—Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is most successful when it sticks to that Cohen-borrowed theme. After the title track (which comes second on the album), there are a couple of songs that get attention with lines about being both “a different kind of girl / If you want some basic bitch, go to the Beverly Center and find her”—hilarious—as well as something closer to the girl she says she’s different from: “an American whore”.
These tunes, “Sweet” and “A&W”, serve up the sexpot Lana Del Rey who is at once the most obvious and least interesting part of her brand. Also on-brand and uninteresting (musically, anyway), are the two “Interludes”. One is Del Rey’s candid live recording of pastor-to-the-stars Judah Smith telling her (so the sermon boils down) to sing for herself, not for her audience, with Del Rey making the occasional sound of recognition and approval. The other is a companion to track six, “Candy Necklace”—both feature Jon Batiste, and together, these three tracks mostly just deepen those “vibes” that are integral to the brand but inessential to the ears. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is a 16-track, 78-minute album, and some of it will lose even her most ardent fans.
Track eight is where it regains itself through the extended metaphor of “Kintsugi”: a Japanese term for a pottery repair technique that calls attention to the crack rather than hides it. For Del Rey, it’s all about the light getting in, although exactly what kind of light is somewhat hard to identify without annotations: true to Pastor Smith’s exhortation to preach for herself, this is a deeply personal song that only her closest Grant kinfolk could probably understand in its entirety.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is massive enough to introduce one final theme as it reaches its tenth track, the point at which most albums would be closing up shop. “Paris, Texas” is a very beautiful waltz: the fastest and shortest song on the album, which is a relief after the slow, wandering, six-minute “Fingertips” that precedes it and goes even deeper into the Grants. “Paris, Texas” may or may not have something to do with the 1984 Wim Wenders film, but it’s certainly concerned with what comes in through the cracks along with the light: knowledge. “When you know, you know”, Del Rey sings, and what you know is that “it’s time to go”.
The song’s lonely melancholy is lightly goosed by the next place Del Rey pops up after she leaves Paris: Florence, but the one in Alabama, not Italy (gotcha). That sets us up for the final verse, in which she’s going home to Venice: also not the one Italy, of course, but Southern California, where all the light gets in. Two songs later, after another involuted and long-titled song about the Grants, comes “Let the Light In”, an explicit restatement of the theme. It’s a beautifully harmonized duet with Father John Misty based on the album’s best-developed chord structure—a gorgeous song. By now, light is getting in all over this album, and on “Let the Light In,” the light is trying to bring love in through the cracks along with it.
The song that follows “Let the Light In” is about Del Rey’s collaborator Jack Antonoff and his impending marriage to the titular “Margaret” (Qualley, the actress, who makes a cameo on the album’s final track). The groom himself, Antonoff, sings a verse. “Margaret” brings back “When you know, you know”—but now the thing you know isn’t that it’s time to go, like in “Paris, Texas”, but rather what came in with the light on “Let the Light In”: love, again. What else is there to live for in the end? The scary thing is that it means allowing cracks to form in the “man-made walls” inside which Del Rey is sealed up.
After “Margaret”, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd could just as well end. It has already indulged its share of longueurs and called to mind what the cult pop genius Scott Miller said of his band Game Theory‘s magnum opus Lolita Nation: “I want to make a double album so that everybody can say it would have been a great single album.” There are three more tracks, though, which feel mostly like offloading all the extra light that’s gotten in through this album’s many cracks left deliberately kintsugi. It’s remarkable that this has happened, given the sheer volume of dark femininity Lana Del Rey has expressed here.
Do you think she’s a complete fake or one of her generation’s most important pop musicians? An American original or an American whore? Jack Antonoff’s favorite studio gadget or the cultural force without whom we would never have heard of him? Was Liz Phair right or completely wrong a decade ago when she called Del Rey—by way of ostensible praise—“not overwhelmingly talented”? Maybe she’s less like Phair than J.D. Salinger: two self-protective trauma survivors who make names for themselves by celebrating young people’s disaffection and then go on to build oeuvres increasingly centered, even obsessively fixated, on their own families—and then retreat into making art only for themselves.
There are persuasive arguments to be made for all of the above, partly because we live in a time when even the most private self is shaped into branded content and partly because our definition of talent has changed. Wherever you decide to place her on these spectrums, though, there’s almost no question that with Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, the “Lana Del Rey” who implores us not to forget her has ensured that, at least for a while, we can’t possibly.