Lana Del Rey ranks among the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed artists of her generation. Among those slotted as “indie,” she might be the most acclaimed. Upon the release of her 2019 opus Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey was proclaimed “one of America’s greatest living songwriters,” high praise considering that fellow Americans like Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Carole King are still with us. She is, by any metric, presently at the peak of her prestige.
Perhaps the only person who doesn’t feel this way is Lana Del Rey. In a recent interview conducted by frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff — the privilege of being interviewed by a fellow extremely successful musician rather than a journalist is yet another sign of her rarefied status — Del Rey declared, “I will die an underdog and that’s cool with me.” An underdog? If Del Rey is an upstart, what does that make 99.9 percent of other artists? She is Michael Jordan in the 1990s, winning championship after championship, and yet seeing doubters around every corner. Only MJ did this as a means to stoke his competitive fire, whereas LDR, I think, feels genuinely misunderstood. Figuring out why is a key to understanding Del Rey’s music, including her new album out today, Chemtrails Over The Country Club.
In 2019, in the immediate wake of NFR‘s rapturous reception, Del Rey publicly responded to a lengthy and erudite album review by NPR’s Ann Powers suggesting that LDR makes “a sonic and emotional argument for collapsing the boundaries that uphold authenticity as a cultural value,” via unexpected musical and lyrical juxtapositions. Anyone familiar with her work can recognize to what Powers refers — from the beginning, Del Rey has favored a mix of all-American iconography and hip-hop bravado, dusty country-inspired songwriting and glossy pop production, high feminine glamour and disturbing subjugation, and so on and so on. In Powers’ view, LDR isn’t interesting because of her actual songs — which she deemed “uncooked” — but rather because she has a “compulsion to collapse logic, to violate boundaries musically, through imagery and within her storytelling.” This makes her, according to this argument, a Dylanesque meta-trickster, wielding a series of masks in service of critiquing the very value of “meaning what you say” that music critics have pushed as a virtue for decades.
Del Rey, to put it simply, did not agree. She, in fact, did not seem to understand at all the subversive qualities that Powers (and many other music writers ) have attributed to her music. Over the course of a small handful of tweets, LDR made it clear that she steadfastly believes in the concept of musical authenticity, and sees herself as a shining example of it. “My gift is the warmth I live my life with and the self-reflection I share generously,” she countered.
Now, I can’t say I completely understand what Del Rey was going on about here. But I think I have an idea, and it relates to a theory I’ve long had about Bob Dylan. Sometimes, Dylan does things that nobody understands, like appearing randomly in a Victoria’s Secret commercial or calling Jimmy Buffett one of his favorite songwriters of all time. Inevitably, armchair Dylanologists will imbue these confounding actions with layers of deeper meaning, insisting that he is playing a form of multi-dimensional chess with his persona. And they will argue that this only makes the experience of listening to Dylan’s music all the more profound, because he is, in a sense, “collapsing boundaries” between seemingly unlike cultural artifacts and in the process reinventing the very art of songwriting.
But what if … there is no game? What if the truth is that Bob Dylan is a wonderful songwriter and musician who also happens to be a basic baby boomer from Minnesota who thinks women in lingerie and “Cheeseburger In Paradise” are pretty awesome? And what if his ability to not be self-reflective and live comfortably with these contradictions by simply just being in the moment and doing whatever the hell he wants is the central attribute to which his audience responds? “People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” Kim Gordon once said — what if that’s the essence of Bob Dylan (and Lana Del Rey)?
The conundrum for critics who like Lana Del Rey is that what they appreciate about her doesn’t seem to line up with LDR’s own conception of her work, or (more importantly) what her audience adores about her. Is it possible that she’s not some trickster? What if she sings big, beautiful power ballads about American flags and cool cars and unfashionable rock bands and mesmerizing death scenarios because she (and millions of her fans) find these things to be pretty awesome?
When you put on a Lana Del Rey song, you hear what thrills her, obsesses her, and fires up her imagination. And this inspires authentic emotion, the sort that hits like a wild crescendo at the end of a ’50s teenage car-crash song, the kind you can’t help but feel to the extreme, a symphony not directed at the head or those inclined to intellectualize her every move but toward the id. She puts these elements together because they make sense to her, and she can communicate this in her songs in such a way that it creates a new context for a wide audience. She doesn’t collapse logic so much as create her own Lana logic. This is the warmth with which she lives her life.
With Chemtrails Over The Country Club, Del Rey appears poised for some sort of letdown. With NFR, she delivered the most enticing of critical catnip — a big statement record released at the close of a decade and in the midst of the Trump era, an “obituary for America” perfectly suited for meaty thinkpieces. (Del Rey seems to recognize this aspect of NFR, telling the British music magazine Mojo last fall, “I knew they were going to like Norman [Fucking Rockwell] because there’s kind of nothing not to like about it … it’s easy to cheer for that.”)
Her new album, however, is consciously positioned as a step back from the epic scale and timely thematic concerns of NFR. It also feels, unintentionally, like diminished returns, like when Del Rey revives songs left over from past projects (including the affecting but minor soft-rock folk ballad “Yosemite,” which dates back to her mid-2010s Lust For Life period) or recycling lyrical references from NFR (the nod to Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” in the slinky “Tulsa Jesus Freak”).
And yet Chemtrails, like all LDR albums, still feels like a unified piece of work that, in spite of some wan songwriting lapses, manages to cast a mesmerizing spell. From the time she entered the indie sphere in 2012 as an overnight star with the beguiling single “Video Games,” Del Rey has been a master of vibe. Like all vibes, it falls apart if you think about it too hard or attempt to deconstruct it by parsing the lyrics or dwelling on the derivative musical references. But if you let it waft over you like a scented candle or an Isabella Rossellini torch song, it will seep deep into your system.
As Lana Del Rey fan Bruce Springsteen once put it, LDR’s strength as songwriter is she “creates a world of her own” that’s richly cinematic. If Chemtrails feels like a retreat from the larger world that NFR addresses, it also shows just how cozy Lana Land can be. Your enjoyment of the album will stem from how much you’re already invested in her narrative. This includes a sadly nostalgic flashback to her teen years in “White Dress” — the part where she whispers about a time in her life when “I wasn’t famous / Just listening to Kings of Leon to the beat” is the album’s most quintessentially LDR moment — and the fantasies about middle-aged parental nookie in the title track, in which Lana insists, “I’m not bored or unhappy / I’m still so strange and wild.”
Many of the songs on Chemtrails are about leaving L.A. and starting over in the suburbia of flyover-country, a reaction to Del Rey feeling burdened by the weight of fame. I know this because she literally says she’s “burdened by the weight of fame” in the song “Dance Till We Die.” As always, LDR is telling us exactly what’s on her mind. Maybe it’s time to take those words at face value.
Chemtrails Over The Country Club is out now via Interscope. Get it here.