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“AS LANA TURNS…”: LANA DEL REY’S UNEXPECTED FLIGHT OVER THE COUNTRY CLUB SHE BUILT

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AS EMILY DICKINSON ONCE famously wrote “hope is the thing with feathers.” And while Lana Del Rey should hardly be mentioned in the same paragraph with the “Bard of Amherst,” I couldn’t stop myself from remembering the poem while I was meditating upon Del Rey’s latest album. There is bound to be both disappointment and joy in following the career of a set artist in real time. To begin with an artist you enjoy/like/admire from ground zero and follow their career and catalog in chronological order can be both a privilege and an excruciating journey. I have done so with artists as diverse as Prince and P.J. Harvey, Morrissey as both a member of the Smiths and as a solo artist. Radiohead to Chris Stapleton. And Lana Del Rey.

After the overhyped inertia of 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, what a delightful shock to report that Del Rey has emerged almost Phoenix-like from formulaic self-indulgence, now displaying new colors, imagination and if not depth a resonance largely absent in her work since her last truly surprising and superb record, Ultraviolence.

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 This website is a probationary member of the Amazon Affiliate Marketing LLC program. The above image is a direct link to Amazon.com. Using the link and making any purchase on Amazon.com during a limited time period may result in this website receiving a tiny commission. But the viewer of the website is under no legal or ethical obligation to do so.

 

The title Chemtrails Over the Country Club and the title track are the weakest components of her seventh studio release. Both are throwaways not indicative of the tenor nor strengths of the album.

Although mostly produced by the ubiquitous pop courtier Jack Antonoff(Taylor Swift, Lorde, et al), Chemtrails could have been recorded during the “singer-songwriter” era of Seventies pop music. Del Rey’s lyrical ticks and obsessions anchor it in the now, but the sonics compass towards the way back machine minus any cloying nostalgia.

There’s no rappers or hip hop beats to muddle the flow(pardon the pun). In fact it’s her least “urban” album, an unexpected blessing.

The first shocker about Chemtrails is about how subdued it is. The whole album is stubbornly at midtempo. Yet this metronomic pulse becomes an unexpected sweet spot for her to murmur her obsessions, all the ones which signify a “Lana Del Rey” release.

The piano or lightly arpegeggiated acoustic guitars are the centerpieces of these songs, enhanced by yawning chamber pop accompaniments. The strength of “Mariners Apartment Complex”  has been transferred to these recordings, although nothing here is as superlative as that track.

“Wild at Heart,” the fifth selection on Chemtrails, is the first number to introduce the album’s unexpected foray into a more country direction. Not the country of Loretta Lynn nor Shania Twain, Miranda Lambert or Dolly PartonJenny Lewis would be more like it.
“I love Calabassas/escaped the ashes/ran into the dark/And it made me wild at heart,” she sighs, the images conjuring both David Lynch and Kim Kardashian, which is maybe not as surreal a pairing as it nominally suggests.

“Wild at Heart” is also the first number where the listener is sure to begin appreciating how beautifully layered and enticing the backing vocals are throughout the release. With the album’s unexpected sparseness and reserve, these arrangements are even more captivating, spectral across the mixes.

I don’t think Del Rey has ever offered a song like “White Dress” either. Though a piano ballad and the first of many, the opener unexpectedly alternates between what could have been rote and what emerges as riveting.

The verses are delivered with her usual sleepy sing-song sotto vocce, which has been there since her first album and serves as her hallmark.

But the choruses! Del Rey ‘s hoarse, punctual whispers are so intense that it’s unnerving and communicates to the listener intangibles more than the confusing “confessional” entry of the lyrics. “It made me feel like a god,” she gushes, indicating something beyond a 19 year old woman attending her first music business conference.

“Tulsa Jesus Freak” continues her predilection for blasphemy and obsession with cults and authoritarian leaders, but it’s a beguiling trifle.  Del Rey may never become a Joan Didion, but few recent songwriters have written so frequently about Los Angeles. There’s a narrative about leaving Los Angeles throughout Chemtrails which adds an unexpected layer of bittersweet and reflection.

There is a daring sense of discovery over the last stretch of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, an unexpected detour into country forms and guest female accompaniment which pivots  the album into the sui generis of her catalog.

Who the hell expects Lana Del Rey to drop on us a song from the perspective of Tammy Wynette contemplating what her tumultuous romance to fellow legend George Jones truly meant in retrospect?!? And for her to turn over the lead vocal duties to a country singer Nikki Lane, someone whom I had never been aware of but upon hearing instantly becomes an artist to discover? “Breaking Up Slowly” is a wonderful, gripping number: a character driven accomplishment of historical fiction buoyed by a superlative duet between two female voices. Co-written by Lane, it’s an instant classic.

“Dance Til We Die” begins as a familiar Lana Del Rey warble then explodes with a brief bridge evocative of Laura Nyro.

 

The lyrics mention “Joni” a few times, which is surely a reference to the great Joni Mitchell. One could dismiss the pattern as Del Rey’s usual shorthand reference, a hyper-link knowing reference to someone she wishes to cite, a shortcut to their experience.

But “Dance Til We Die” leads into an unexpected cover of Mitchell’s own classic “For Free.” Upon first listening it does not yield much. The first time I heard it, streaming on my laptop without any data in front of me, I wrongly assumed it was the laziest, longest sample of the selection from Ladies of the Canyon(1970) I had ever heard. Not having the track listing in front of me and preoccupied with some other task, I was slowly shocked to discover hearing a Joni Mitchell song I’ve known for decades. The first voice was clearly not Del Rey’s, while the third one had an eerie similarity to Mitchell’s. Otherwise it’s not a carbon copy of the original, but it sure isn’t remotely a deconstruction in hopes of finding new insights and nuances to troubadour back to knowing ears.

And yet it’s a beautiful, fruitful finale. The “other” voices are Zella Day and Weyes Blood. Again I have no idea who they are, which voice is which, but both can sing, sing, sing. And the three of them together are of the Sirens. Day and Blood bring out a better instinct in Del Rey. She’s more understated–and effective–than usual, the verse she takes actually tugs at your heart strings. It feels lived in. Perhaps she does relate to Mitchell’s autobiographical gem, she grew to hear herself in it.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER:

 This website is a probationary member of the Amazon Affiliate Marketing LLC program. The above image is a direct link to Amazon.com. Using the link and making any purchase on Amazon.com during a limited time period may result in this website receiving a tiny commission. But the viewer of the website is under no legal or ethical obligation to do so.

Maybe Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon is the unsung influence of Chemtrails. If so watch out for the tapestries to come, for more nuance, richness and maturity. From my clicks to Lana’s ears…

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