There is boldly talking your new album up, and then there is the approach taken by Lana Del Rey prior to the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club. “I am literally changing the world by putting my life and thoughts and love out there on the table 24 seven,” she wrote during a social media exchange about her eighth solo album’s cover art. “Respect it.”
Clearly, here were rich pickings for connoisseurs of the point where a pop star says something so self-regarding it makes your head hurt, but Del Ray may be forgiven for getting carried away. An artist given an unfairly rough ride on arrival, she finds herself, a decade on, not merely vastly commercially successful, but hugely influential, the inspiration behind a wave of melancholy bedroom pop that loops disconsolately in the background of TikTok videos. Moreover, her last album, 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, topped critical end of year lists (including in the Guardian) and was hailed as the work of “simply one of the best songwriters in the country” by Bruce Springsteen. She was recently featured on the front of a heritage rock magazine that doesn’t ordinarily put photographs of thirtysomething singer-songwriters on its cover unless they were taken in 1972. “Joan Baez advocates her acceptance in the pantheon,” it wrote, reassuring its more conservative readers.
This has all been achieved by refining what she does rather than radically remodelling it. There are points where Chemtrails Over the Country Club edges slightly into new territory: when she abandons her dead-eyed vocal style for a breathy falsetto that sounds edgy and panicked; when the geographical location of her lyrics moves from LA to the midwest; when the sound of Dark But Just a Game is subjected to a series of jump-cuts, her vocal suddenly losing its coating of distortion, the backing shifting from echoey to claustrophobically intimate. But these are minor alterations, not tearing up the plans.
The songs stick to her patented tempo – everything moves with all the pacy zip of the World Indoor Bowls Championship – and exists in the space Del Rey demarcated some time ago, where trip-hop meets early 70s singer-songwriter stylings, the lush spookiness of Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night and the reverb-y sound of Mazzy Star. Its lyrical cast is heavily populated by brooding, ne’er-do-well men – “I’m on the run with you my sweet love” etc – for whom the protagonist will do anything: “We should go back to Arkansas, trade this body for that can of gin.” There are ruminations on the dark side of fame and success – “their stories all end tragically … the best ones lose their minds,” suggests Dark But Just a Game – with a dash of bitter personal experience thrown in. Opener White Dress finds her recalling her pre-fame job as a waitress, with the kind of period detail that doubtless pushes nostalgia buttons for the millennial wing of her fanbase (“listening to the White Stripes when they were white hot”) and wondering aloud if “maybe I was better off”.
She also does the things she keeps angrily telling people she never does: singing in character, projecting a persona, writing with her tongue lodged firmly in her cheek – on Breaking Up Slowly, her latest ne’er-do-well partner is depicted as the alcoholic country singer George Jones, reacting to having his car keys deliberately hidden from him by heading off to the liquor store on his sit-on lawnmower – and warranting the word “meta”. “I’m covering Joni,” she sings on Dance Til We Die, shortly before doing precisely that, closing the album with a version of For Free, another gloomy rumination on the hollowness of fame, from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon.
There are certainly points where you think you’ve heard a lot of this stuff before; perhaps the claims for her genius have a lot to do with context. In a pop world predicated on trend-chasing, her doubling-down approach is how Del Rey has developed such a recognisable musical identity that her name has started to take on an adjectival quality: if you describe a song as Lana Del Rey-esque, people know exactly what you mean.
Still, Chemtrails Over the Country Club does what it does exceptionally well. The songwriting misfires that plagued her early albums have been eradicated through that refinement; everything here is incredibly melodically strong, strong enough, in fact, that it feels beguiling rather than formulaic, which is an impressive feat to pull off. It literally isn’t going to change the world, no matter what its creator thinks. But almost uniquely among her peers, she’s created a world of her own, which is deserving of respect. How long she can keep inhabiting it before that world feels confined is another question.
What Alexis listened to this week
Apparently influenced by Luther Vandross, the rapper’s return is a joyous, tumbling Hudson Mohawke-co-produced pleasure.