Lana’s latest seems destined to be lost among grander statements, but is nonetheless another worthy work of self-exploration from one of music’s most introspective stars.
Few pop artists in recent years have oscillated between mass adoration and mass infamy as regularly as Lana Del Rey, recipient of both gendered media controversies and well-reasoned criticism regarding depictions of desire/female agency in her music. Del Rey’s latest dust-up was perhaps her most severe yet; having at last achieved true prestige with Norman Fucking Rockwell! — a state of the union address for depressed Twitter users that doubled as 2019’s most acclaimed album — Del Rey celebrated her ascent to the summit by lashing out at critics, Black female artists, and activists alike over perceived slights and insults. It was a move best understood as a “soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you” gesture, and probably led to many listeners indeed liking her less. Del Rey has been an agent of her own public scorn as well as the target of others’ ungenerous scrutiny, and this most recent instance of the former inevitably alters expectations for her music. Someone whose conduct is actively distancing them from modern social discourse shouldn’t be expected to deliver another “sign of the times” treatise.
Still, it could be said that the stakes for Chemtrails Over the Country Club are noticeably lower than NFR!. As with other recent post-heel turn efforts from Kanye West (Ye) and Grimes (Miss Anthropocene), Lana’s latest captures the living-for-the-moment bliss of its protagonist, adopting a posture that is alternately free and defiant. Or, as she puts it herself on the title track, “I’m not unhinged or unhappy, I’m just wild.” For listeners inclined to accept or overlook this threadbare explanation for recent behavior, the album is as effective a sustained mood piece as any other Del Rey release to date. “White Dress” is one such peak of evocation, blending diaristic remembrances with references to our shared pop culture past to conjure a fleeting moment of poignance. Trip hop throwback “Dark But Just a Game” is another highlight, with compressed verses unfurling into a lush chorus. The narrator’s self-definition under duress proves personal, and never more so than on the momentum-building, sun-dappled sound of “Wild at Heart.”
Del Rey lets nary a moment here stray from the preservation of her own self-identity; on the unexpected, honky tonk-adjacent “Dance Till We Die,” she’s “Dancing with Joan [Baez],” taking calls from Stevie Nicks, “covering Joni [Mitchell]” — and the latter claim is, in fact, realized on Chemtrails closer, “For Free,” with aid from Zella Day and Weyes Blood. This album’s sonic identity seems to be intentionally bearing out comparisons with its effective approximation of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter era (courtesy of returning producer/svengali Jack Antonoff). To a literal extent these songs’ stories are “real” — those Nicks and Baez stories happened, too — but more importantly they support the free-wheeling narrative that Del Rey pursues with Chemtrails. Beyond that framing, the subject matter and musical choices here will largely seem familiar, and range from falling in-and-out of love (typical) to ruminations on God (less typical, relative to past output) and are tied together with that well-chosen cover (Joni Mitchell cover — also typical). This adds up to a lower key set than the often-bombastic NFR!, scanning more as contiguous to Del Rey’s other works — which makes sense, since her presentation is pretty much unchanged.
The complication, this time, is the recently growing awareness of Lana’s public persona, which casts this album in a different light. The tendencies toward intimidation that characterize some of Del Rey’s recent interviews color, and inhabit, Chemtrails. You could even consider the album’s evocative title as an analogue for thinking about its effect — poisonous fumes on view high above an idyll. The announcement that Del Rey will be releasing a new album in June that will ostensibly challenge notions that her “career was built on cultural appropriation and glamorizing domestic abuse” indicates that she is not done defining herself — and in oppositional terms. This is perhaps to be expected; pop star performance of aggrievement is a tried-and-true way to activate fanbases, and the experience of being slotted into an ill-fitting role seems intolerably odious to Del Rey. With this slightly hostile album — and the likelihood of further drama being imminent — Chemtrails seems poised to become something of a “lost” record in Lana’s oeuvre. For now, though, the stylistic inclinations and emotional acuity here provide an impressionistic peek at the world of its author — a series of refined dioramas in the eye of a storm.
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 1.