Despite some misguided early philosophising, the pandemic has not turned out to be a great leveller: we have all been, to borrow a viral metaphor, navigating the same stormy sea in very different vessels. It has, however, made Lana Del Rey a bit more relatable. The musician has often seemed more highly stylised cipher than everywoman, toying with romantic ideals of American culture and darkly dysfunctional love. Yet on her eighth album, Blue Banisters, she has more pedestrian activities in mind, such as Zoom calls and trips to Target.
“If this is the end, I want a boyfriend / Someone to eat ice-cream with and watch television,” she sings on Black Bathing Suit, a song that appears to nod to lockdown weight gain (“The only thing that still fits me is this black bathing suit”). Later, she is overcome by signs of ordinary life returning: on Violets for Roses, once run-of-the-mill sights such as young women frolicking maskless and bookshops reopening can now elicit euphoria.
Ultimately, Black Bathing Suit returns to her favoured themes of “bad girls” and negative press attention. Yet Blue Banisters is perhaps her most autobiographically straightforward album to date, documenting a failed romance and the inception of her current one, and her relationships with her sister (close) and her mother (difficult). The arresting, almost funereal title track begins as a tribute to her girlfriends, before talking about the limits of female solidarity when it comes to heartbreak and unhappy singledom.
The conversation about whether there has ever been any sort of character at play with Del Rey has orbited her career since her 2011 breakthrough, thanks to her evocative aesthetic – a vaguely low-rent, all-American glamour that harks back to the 60s and 70s – fancy pseudonym (her real name is Lizzy Grant) and her borderline-camp treatment of femininity, toxic relationships and her homeland. Yet, in response to a review of her 2019 album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey insisted that she’d “never had a persona, never needed one, never will”. And while her music sometimes seems tongue-in-cheek, her public statements suggest she takes herself very seriously indeed. A recent announcement that alluded to media criticism included the line: “I must say I’ve enjoyed moving through the world beautifully – as a woman with grace and dignity.”
Nevertheless, it’s still impossible to listen to Blue Banisters, where heart-on-sleeve soliloquies and meandering trains of thought rub up against wry humour and oblique braggadocio, and not feel confused. The sweeping but minimal opening track Text Book, about being attracted to a man because he resembles her father, seems to have a knowing wink baked in. Or does it? Is Beautiful – in which Del Rey defends her melancholic tendencies over twinkly keys with the line: “What if someone had asked / Picasso not to be sad?” – at all self-aware? It doesn’t seem like it – especially considering that the creative power of feeling blue is the album’s overarching theme.
The gorgeous dirge-like closer, Sweet Carolina, co-written with her dad and sister, acts as a moving love letter to the latter as she prepares to give birth. Yet in the middle the mood is completely undercut by a lyric about a woman who calls her child “Lilac Heaven after your iPhone 11”, and has a crypto-obsessed bro for a boyfriend. Del Rey’s slipperiness makes her the mirror inverse of Adele – her mainstream counterpart when it comes to down-tempo, morose, “classic” balladry – whose own intentions always seem crystal clear: strictly earnest on record, gleefully irreverent off it.
However disorientating her company can be, Del Rey’s world-building is never less than completely absorbing, and her vocal presence – which also seems to mess with female singing tropes (she is by turns breathily intimate, Joni-level piercing, despondently flat) – is as potent as any singer of her generation. It does mean her songs’ musical foundations, usually either portentous piano or gently plucked guitars, tend to fade into the background. But the fact there is often little tangible difference between them is not the problem it might be for another artist: Del Rey is all about honing her own idiosyncratic melodic grammar – her toplines are always incredibly inventive and beautiful – that her peers inevitably chase years later.
The samey-ness can also seem exaggerated because of Del Rey’s productivity: Blue Banisters is her second full-length album of 2021 after Chemtrails Over the Country Club. It can make an artist’s work seem less special, an impression compounded here by the inclusion of offcuts from 2014’s Ultraviolence and an abandoned 2017 collaborative album with Alex Turner and Miles Kane’s side project the Last Shadow Puppets. Kane lends his voice to the most sonically exciting song on the album, the ambling, bluesy Dealer, on which Del Rey lets rip, woman-on-the-verge style, like a Tennesse Williams heroine, or John Lennon on Mother.
It’s grimly funny and deserves its spot, but the other throwbacks feel less noteworthy, blending into a glacial dirge. Yet despite the wavering quality, Blue Banisters is an important addition to Lana lore. That she can still manage to be this perplexing after a decade in the game is a massive achievement.