Two things happen when I give each new Lana Del Rey album a spin. I get a complete thrill – at what she’s turned out to be, how clearly her strange aesthetic plays out, how witty her words are these days, how strong and consistent her imaginative world. And then I have a big slump. It might be that her records are front-loaded with all the good tracks: there seems to be a dazzling setting out of the stall, each time, then 30 minutes sitting behind it twiddling her hair. But does it really matter if she basically does one thing when that thing itself is getting better and better? “Video Games”, her first hit, floated out on its own in 2011 as a viral phenomenon, detached from any idea of who she was. It wasn’t just a song – it was a mood and a world. In Chemtrails Over The Country Club, Del Rey’s unusual, 3D music continues.
In recent years it’s become apparent that she is funny. At least in her songs. In “White Dress”, where minimalist music and cloud-scrapingly high vocals give all the impression of deep introspection, she reminisces about being a waitress, “…wearing a white dress / Look how I do this, look how I got this / […] Down at the Men In Music Business Conference / I only mention it because it was such a scene”. She has always managed to make things modern and mundane sound classic, which is probably she was drawn to the hyperreal world of 1950s advertising. But increasingly her strength is in the jarring banality of her images, in such a sincere-sounding setting. That is where the surprises lie.
Those who like Joni Mitchell will pick up a handful of piano notes at the start of “White Dress” that recall her 1970 song “Willy”. Del Rey boldly closes the album with a cover of Mitchell’s “For Free”, sung with Zella Day and Weyes Blood (who is such an uncanny match for Mitchell that I assumed it was a sample). In “For Free”, Mitchell pines for a former, simpler life as a musician, as Del Rey pines for her waitress days. Even chemtrails – well, jet trails – are Joni Mitchell images: on “Amelia”, she sings of their pattern in the sky: “It was the hexagram of the heavens / It was the strings of my guitar.”
Some of what Del Rey is doing lyrically is the same as she did on 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!. The effortless eroticism of the line “I’m taking off my bathing suit” (from that album’s “The Next Best American Record”) is reflected in Chemtrails Over The Country Club’s title track: “Wearing our jewels in the swimming pool / Just me and my sister playing it cool.” But perhaps there is a freer spirit emerging than the cartoon waspy girl lounging sulkily in the Hamptons. There was a song on the last album called “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It”, where Del Rey pictured herself “tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath”. In “Chemtrails Over The Country Club”, she says: “I’m not unhinged or unhappy, I’m just wild.”
Whatever the new spirit is, it is enhancing the persona and moving the focus away from the men she loved to worship: I always had an image of her throwing herself down and wiping their feet with her hair. And that’s the biggest difference on the new record: Del Rey’s awful, miserable boy-men are absent. There is plenty of relationship stuff, but it washes over you, taking second place to her eccentricities. Talk of love seems more self-contained, as in “Breaking Up Slowly” (“I don’t want to end up like Tammy Wynette”), which is so tightly written and self-consciously country that I thought Miley Cyrus was duetting on it (it’s actually Nikki Lane).
Speaking of strange voices, Del Rey’s wispy angel singing may dominate (in “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”, she harmonises with herself over ethereal sprays of acoustic guitar) but on “Dance Till We Die” she breaks, for a few seconds, into a great bit of blues singing, with a squelching Janis Joplin backdrop. The song is about the Louisiana two-step and I’m pretty sure Del Rey must have watched Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses Don’t They before she wrote it. Who knows, maybe there is more musical variation from her on the horizon. And if there isn’t, there is plenty of room in the world for Lana Del Rey to keep doing what she does.