Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Review: Blue Banisters • Lana Del Rey



Two new Lana Del Rey records in seven months would have turned the year 2013 on its head. At that time, the genesis of Lana Del Rey seemed to have been far too swift for an artist who had putzed around for nearly a decade without catching fire. Within a matter of months, Lana Del Rey would be launched from fickle online shitposter to the golden standard for a class of alternative pop pessimists to follow her high glamour, high drama debut Born to Die. In the heat of her newfound celebrity, she was ready to quit – but fans clung to her, begging for more in fear that their new favorite artist would be burnt out before long. Little did we know that in 2021, Lana Del Rey would make the hardest pendulum swing of her career, releasing two albums (and tease even more) before scrubbing her presence from the social media platforms through which she built her career.

Like the record that preceded it earlier this year, Blue Banisters reframes Lana Del Rey as a literalist folk songwriter of sorts. While Chemtrails Over the Country Club traced the Midwest, bringing with it a roadsy Western slant to Del Rey’s music, Blue Banisters is planted in solitude. Del Rey capitalized on the pandemic to retreat to ordinary life, as if her mid-2010s surge in status was a fever dream. Her inward narratives are unfussy and lack her telltale sensationalism as she conveys the immediate world around her, from her friends by the pool to “a picture of me on the wall of me on a John Deere.” Rather than blanket them in expansive metaphor, tension and shortcomings are placed in plain English this time around – “My father never stepped in when his wife would rage at me, so I ended up awkward but sweet,” she sings on “Wildflower Wildfire,” a track that is a theoretic standout but falls flat in its huffy execution. “Text Book,” though, is a more intriguing listen, as she inspects her previous relationships with men and her father: “You've got a Thunderbird. My daddy had one, too. Let's rewrite history. I'll do this dance with you. You know I'm not that girl, you know I'll never be. Maybe just the way we're different could set me free” 

The record is far disconnected from the artist who once transformed her dullest realities into overwrought, near-timeless noir, though it’s an understandable one given that cosplaying as Marilyn Monroe and singing songs of imminent disaster while superimposed over an American flag is a bit too on the nose for the occasion. In turn, while the songs are her slowest burners yet, the songwriting is a fast and loose snapshot of today. Sure, there are some love songs – “Thunder” is a gorgeous addition here, smoldering with a ‘70s pop-rock energy, and “Arcadia” has become an essential ballad in her repertoire – and some heartbreak songs, but the record is time-stamped in 2021. As she eyes down the barrel of isolation, “Black Bathing Suit” falls apart into three song structures, with harsh tempo changes and an outright vocal breakdown. She damns her pregnant sister’s boyfriend on “Sweet Carolina,” a family affair written with her father: “You name your babe Lilac Heaven after your iPhone 11. ‘Crypto forever,’ yells your stupid boyfriend. Fuck you, Kevin.” Sorry, Kevin. And sorry, Baby Lilac Heaven.

Upon first listen, it’s easy to tell what Blue Banisters is not. It is not the kind of high gloss record that made Lana Del Rey a musical harbinger. It is not always pretty or even particularly interesting: She breaks into an off-key wail in most of “Dealer,” and its closing chunk of the record immediately reveals itself to have been cobbled together from past albums’ rejects. But this record is also not as insulated or as deflective, either. It takes time with Blue Banisters to understand just how many bricks the record pulls from the retaining wall between the person and the persona. Even for how clunky the songwriting can become as she rushes through stanzas to squeeze in every last detail, the songs expose her hardwiring in ways her past major label records couldn’t consistently achieve. It would be unwise to call the record a return to pre-fame form for Lana Del Rey, among the most unpredictable power figures in popular music. We can never be sure where she’s going next, but what’s important about Blue Banisters is that she didn’t go anywhere at all – and it left her no option but to inspect a harsh reflection in front of her.

Blue Banisters is available now under Interscope Records.

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Maira Gall