Sunday, March 21, 2021

Review: Chemtrails over the Country Club • Lana Del Rey

 


Gangsta Nancy Sinatra: It’s a phrase that has been reprinted in so many pieces on Lana Del Rey – hack jobs and profiles alike – that it’s impossible to find the source of the buzzy description in a pile of headlines. Whether it was her sarcastic YouTube profile tagline or just has been passed down as music journalism folklore, the phrase is often leveraged against Del Rey as a sign of her alleged inauthenticity or lack of self-awareness. And while its derogatory uses may be valid in the sense that Del Rey has a certain ignorance to spatial recognition, it never seemed compatible with the introductory version of Lana Del Rey: She was both an emotional songwriter and technically sound vocalist, but neither in a particularly tender manner – “was” being the operative word.

After merging into alternative rock on 2013’s Ultraviolence, Del Rey spent no less than two full album cycles loosening the bolts of Born To Die, a landmark pop record that splattered overwrought misfit poetry over a gentrified hip-hop environment. Sharp repurposed beats faded into warm smolders as she moved toward Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a record that pivoted her into the space she thought she always occupied. An unexpected win for Del Rey in the critical arena that had battered her many times over, it’s a skillful singer-songwriter’s record that touts purposeful songwriting while seeming to spill off the cuff – and with its release, the once “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” had crossed into Nancy Sinatra’s territory. What was chosen to succeed Norman!, to many, would be an important compass as to the artistry Lana Del Rey can sustain.

Announced the day Norman! was released, Chemtrails over the Country Club solidifies its predecessor's move into folk-informed soft pop. Peeling back any ornamentation used to glamourize Del Rey’s songwriting and leaving just the studs intact, the musical sketchbook takes the pace of a slow walk down the path less traveled. All the while, each track reaches closer toward the album’s closing cover, aspiring to match the picturesque storytelling on her loyal rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” And in that way, the record fulfills its goal while remaining as much a Del Rey record as any other in some regards: A long time collector of buzzy phrases, she stitches them together into vivid, inexplicably alluring stanzas without the prerequisite of clarity when she intertwines her own experiences into those of a jewel-adorned country club socialite, a disaster-bound dignitary, and a secluded songwriter beyond her years.

Even if she sometimes gives herself the liberty to coil around the same unregimented musical ideas, Chemtrails over the Country Club becomes Del Rey’s most uncompromising statement. Teetering within the fragile place between her chest voice and upper register, she defies expectations with a polarizing delivery on opening track “White Dress” as she crafts the narrative of a young waitress seemingly on a whim. It’s a resounding success to my ear, for what it’s worth, and an accurate foreshadow to the remainder of a record that unfolds rather than climaxes. As her vocals carry over vast open spaces in Jack Antonoff’s production work, the songs only intensify when she harmonizes – most remarkably on “Wild at Heart,” which interpolates (and outshines) Norman! cut “How to Disappear,” and with singer-songwriter Nikki Lane on “Breaking Up Slowly,” a somber echo chamber that integrates Lane’s country music background.

Of course, with every Lana Del Rey album cycle comes the perpetual question: Does she even want to do this anymore? In the months prior to the album’s release, she posted an eclectic collection of material to her social media accounts: A visit to a stuntman who sat in a pool of bean dip for a day, a preemptive self-defense essay regarding the diversity represented on this album’s cover image, and appreciation posts for Andra Day and Joan Baez. Four days before release, when most artists would intensify promotion of their records, Del Rey posted, “This is my last post as my album rapidly approaches. [...] Until we meet again, I’ll be out there somewhere. Running with the wolves.” So is the mysterious life of Lana Del Rey: Forever on the run, dropping us into another intense phase in her life with each record before abandoning us there once again in search of the next.

The day after the release of Chemtrails over the Country, she had already vacated interest in favor of a new record announced via a spiteful Instagram response to a critical Harper’s Bazaar article. The upcoming one, she implied, seeks revenge over claims of cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Nevertheless, Chemtrails manages to capture Lana Del Rey content in stasis, just for a few moments: Spacious and stagnant, the record detaches Del Rey from her chaotic celebrity status and instead reframes her as a nomadic Midwest troubadour with a much better understanding of her own vintage musical inspirations. And while this record relies too strongly on a listener’s patience for subtle flourishes, it is among her sharpest artistic moments that provides a clearer view into the artist Lana Del Rey wants to be – at least for now, that is.

Chemtrails over the Country Club is available now under Interscope Records.

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Maira Gall