Anti-feminist, glamorizer of abuse, right-wing sympathizer, closet racist, cultural appropriator. Wherever Lana Del Rey’s muses lead her, it seems that they always put her against the grain of the ideologies that guide her pop star contemporaries. Not that Lana is a pop star in the traditional sense. Even the most stripped-back, “authentic” songstresses of the Top 40 lack the surreal and glamorous dimensions of any given one of her songs. But in the nine years since Born to Die, Del Rey seems to provoke endlessly and effortlessly, from well-intentioned if fraught Instagram diatribes to lyrics that dare to go places that would give Taylor Swift’s management a heart attack.
And yet, even a cursory scan of her discography reveals a consistency that illustrates how much the controversy has to do with Lana herself versus the mirror she holds to American culture. From Ultraviolence to Norman Fucking Rockwell, she hasn’t stopped looking for love in dark places, referencing the seemingly obvious, relishing the truth in platitudes, lamenting men’s inability to be men, and her inability to be without them anyway. And yet, the narrative around her songwriting changes violently with each album cycle. Most often, this manifests in bizarre attempts to rationalize her perspective away as an anomaly rather than profoundly resonant in a field of contemporaries peddling relatability that’s not relatable or alienating fantasy. Though she can sometimes feel like she’s from another planet, more often, Lana Del Rey feels like the most human pop star we have.
There’s a reason for that, and most of it has to do with her inability to stop herself from making mistakes– for love, for art, for the sake of making a point muddled by her uncommon perspective. One of Lana’s weaker lyrical angles has always been her attempts to look beyond herself, often taking the form of a flower-crowned kumbaya earth mother lacking any critical distance on the cultural panic that inspires her. Her Lust for Life track “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” — in which she clutches her chest at the idea of the $1,000 Coachella ticket-holders (“children”) feeling distressed at American tension with North Korea — is her most egregious crime of this sort. It exposes a disconnect between the real world that a great Lana song so effortlessly inhabits and the stratospheric fame that can isolate her from it personally.
For a moment, her seventh album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, seemed troublingly poised to be an album-length extrapolation on the ideas that drive “Coachella”. Press leading up to the record had more to do with accusations of tone-deafness than the music: her mesh mask worn to indoor signings of her poetry book (later revealed to be lined with a clear material), her desire to answer questions about the racial makeup of the Chemtrails album cover before they were even asked, her jumbled (though not particularly wrong) diagnosis of Trumpism as a disease of narcissism and sociopathy.
When the lead single that shares the album’s name finally released — a shrugging, grill pilled response to looming conspiratorial feelings racking America in which the “normal” people (Lana, her sister, her friends) “wear their jewels in the swimming pool” and go barefoot to the farmer’s market– it stood to reason that we might be in for an album that didn’t play to Lana’s strengths. Plus, after the near-universal fanfare that accompanied 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, doing something pointedly unappetizing seemed like a pretty Lana thing to do.
Graciously, Chemtrails keeps the social prognoses to a minimum and instead stands as the rawest and unadorned take on Lana Del Rey’s original vision. Chemtrails isn’t a doomed vision for the future, nor is it stupidly hopeful behind the safety of money and fame. Instead, it stays within Lana’s wheelhouse, sending up conspiracies of the self and lamenting a cultural moment in which we’re told that we can’t trust our instincts, that we must be crazy.
Fittingly, it’s done entirely on Lana’s terms. Though the denser poetic lyricism and lush arrangements courtesy of Jack Antonoff carry over from Norman Fucking Rockwell, Chemtrails is more muted and spacious than any of her past work. Much of its tracklist shares DNA with her 2013 cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”. The album is a collection of subdued, folksy slow-burners addressed to an ambiguous “you”. Even its musically busier tracks maintain a spare lightness, through whispery reverb on “Tulsa Jesus Freak” or heavy Portishead-inspired instrumentation suddenly dropping out on “Dark But Just a Game”. Her vocals are sharper and more tender than ever, too. Her spare chorus on “Dark” is lovely and sublime, and her bridge on “Dance Till We Die” is some of the most impassioned and convicted of her career.
Album opener “White Dress” will likely go on to be one of the crown jewels of Lana’s discography. In a vocal take that at some points sounds like the very first whispered ideas for a song, and at others sounds like one of the most confident performances in a decade of Lana tracks, she offers a rare glimpse of the years in which she kicked around the industry waiting for something to something to stick. “Down at the men in music business conference / Down in Atlanta, I was only 19 / I only mention it because it was such a scene / And I felt seen.” It’s as much a lamentation of fame as it is a resigned acceptance of it. Vignettes of “simpler times” that made her feel more “like a God” than finding success did make for a gorgeously drawn admission of her distorted reality. (The mournful crackle of her Juul left in the mix adds a winking twist.)
“Dark But Just a Game” stands out for similar reasons — inspired by meeting one of her idols and being heartbroken by the encounter. Lana turns out one of the strongest choruses of the album for a Ginsberg “Howl” reference to guard herself against the rot of icon status.
Lyrically, Chemtrails is still a Lana album for better or for worse, bouncing from moments of unrivaled profundity (“Trade this body for that can of gin / Like a little piece of heaven”) to sounding like she’s singing along to an aisle of pillows at HomeGoods (“Not all those who wander are lost / It’s just wanderlust”). The album benefits from the lessons learned on Norman. However, several songs slip into a bleary hypnotic coda à la “Venice Bitch”, punctuated by abstracted and dreamy mantras (“White hot forever and ever and ever, amen”). Lana lays her influences and references out as plainly as always — Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks — but where the Marilyn Monroes and Elvis Presleys of Born to Die were icons to worship, Lana sings and dances alongside the touchstones of Chemtrails, less of an outsider than ever.
Some of the album’s deep cuts suffer from sounding like weaker retreads of Norman tracks (“Yosemite”), and others straight-up pale compared to the album’s knockouts. Though the title track fares better in context, the earlier single “Let Me Love You Like a Woman” is inexplicably included right in the middle of “Tulsa Jesus Freak” and “Wild at Heart”, which both blow it completely out of the water. The track features a bland and uninspired chord progression and a flat, phoned-in chorus with lyrics that sound like a joke about a Lana Del Rey song: “Let me love you like a woman / Let me hold you like a baby / Let me shine like a diamond / Let me be who I’m meant to be.”
“Breaking Up Slowly” is also a bit of a head-scratcher, featuring raspy vocals from country singer Nikki Lane that nearly pass for Miley Cyrus. With practically no differentiation between verse and hook and a chemistry-free duet between Lana and Lane, the two-and-a-half-minute runtime feels like an eternity.
Though Chemtrails isn’t quite Lana’s strongest album (that’s still Norman) nor is it the most iconically Lana (that’ll always be Ultraviolence), it’s an intimate, emotional, and largely successful renewal of her artistic vows: to follow her heart, her muses, her unfashionable desires — no matter what it brings out in other people. It’s rarely easy to be Lana Del Rey, but Chemtrails will make you glad that somebody is doing it.