Blue Bannisters is first Lana album in a while that isn’t exactly doing its own thing but it still presents occasional pleasures, even if it pales in comparison to previous similar albums.
As much as there’s an aesthetic and thematic throughline to Lana Del Rey’s discography, it’s also true that each new Lana album tends to do a different thing — which is the main reason why Blue Banisters is the lesser of her two releases this year. March’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, while still a step-down from 2019’s career-best Norman Fucking Rockwell, had going for it its (relative) concision (her shortest since 2012’s quasi-EP Paradise, anyway); and more than that, it had an arsenal of formal and stylistic gamuits packed into those 45 minutes. The mesmerizing opener “White Dress” (with its PJ Harvey-esque bated-breath delivery), the glam-rock break of “Dance Til We Die,” and the unabashedly cracking falsetto on “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” all represented a real extension of what was starting to seem like a limited vocal vocabulary. Add to that a focused thematic thrust — solidarity with name-checked women (“Joan” Baez, “Tammy” Wynette) whom Lana sees as occupying a similar space of celebrity — plus some of the catchiest melodies since Lana more overtly courted pop earlier in her career, and you had a more-than-worthy addition to (and marked expansion of) the Del Rey canon.
Critical response to Chemtrails was, in retrospect, somewhat predictable: The moderate shift away from Norman’s autobiographical directness lead some to label the album as “impersonal,” as if only explicit lyrical references to her life — and not, say, the emotional commitment in her vocal performances — could signify investment in her work. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that Lana gives much of a fuck about critics’ opinions of her — or, at least, that she lets those opinions steer the direction of her artistic output — but nonetheless, the quickly materialized Blue Banisters sounds a lot like a capitulation to those calls for a more Norman-esque album. And while returning to that well and updating us seems more than reasonable for Del Rey — especially since she deactivated all her social media in the time since Chemtrails — comparisons to Norman specifically, with some exceptions, aren’t too flattering.
Blue Banisters peaks with its opening triptych, which also marks the most emphatic assertion of Lana’s return to a more autobiographical perspective for this album: Each song almost acts as constituent parts of a single thesis on the Lana Del Rey mythos and its motivations, respectively probing her mind (“Text Book”), heart (“Blue Banisters”), and body (“Arcadia”). The latter is particularly stunning for the way it mediates a kind of distancing device which Lana has employed many times before (“my body is a map of LA”) with a genuine expression of intimacy and vulnerability. “All roads that lead to you as integral to me as arteries / That get the blood flowing straight to the heart of me” goes the refrain, effectively liberating Lana from the trappings of iconography that she would revel in on earlier songs like “Ride” and “National Anthem.” With “Arcadia,” she’s still interested in blurring the line between her own identity and the signifiers of the cultural landscapes that formed it, but the numbness that once imbued her songwriting voice has been replaced with a more mature, and emotionally complex, form of self-reflection.
“Text Book” and “Blue Banisters” add their own colors to the self-portrait, respectively; one articulates the specific psychological (and narratological) conditions behind Lana’s cyclical romantic entanglements with a certain kind of man, while the other mines the emotional depths of the sadness and healing that the ebbing relationships in her life evoke. These three inaugural songs, when taken together, offer such an incisive and insightful read on Lana’s artistic and personal identity that the remaining 12 tracks on this album can feel like more of an afterthought, or an addendum. Lana herself almost seems to recognize the separation, dividing the opening trilogy from the rest of the set with a bizarre, minute-long “interlude” that pairs an Ennio Morricone sample with a raft of trunk-rattling bass drops that call back to her more hip hop-indebted debut album, Born to Die — and that feels completely anachronistic to the rest of Blue Banisters. Instead, the rest of the album sounds a lot like the beginning — delicate, slow, spare ballads — and shares its heady ambitions as well. The problem with that, then, becomes that a full album of songs that play like thesis statements is kind of exhausting.
There are still highlights to be found here, like the shuffling and sexy “If You Lie Down With Me” and the quite moving “Violets for Roses,” which branches out a bit from the self-focused core conceit of Blue Banisters in its expression of empathy for all women who resist external pressure to change themselves. But even these songs are much more familiar melodically, and aesthetically pro forma, than the best cuts off of both Norman Fucking Rockwell and Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Moreover, some of the weakest songs that Lana’s ever released fill out this album’s back-to-standard one-hour runtime, particularly “Dealer,” which marks the first whiff for Lana when it comes to inviting other vocalists into the booth with her (after resolute success stories like her collaborations with The Weeknd and Weyes Blood). The preening, psychedelic-lite chorus from Brit-rock journeyman Miles Kane just fills space that Lana herself would sound better filling, as she proves every time her own caterwauling vocal displaces him.
The stoned dub of “Dealer” is generally an outlier here, thankfully, on an album that at least largely sticks to one direction — which suggests that Lana may have now gotten messy and eclectic releases like 2017’s divisive Lust for Life out of her system (for better and worse). In its scope and sheer lyrical density, Blue Banisters probably does more to shore-up Lana Del Rey’s bona fides as a serious singer-songwriter than Chemtrails Over the Country Club did; on the other hand, if anyone was still questioning that after Norman Fucking Rockwell, then this isn’t likely to be the album that convinces them. Instead, this is the first album from Lana in a while (since Honeymoon to be exact) that, in fact, doesn’t seem to be doing its own thing — that’s more genuinely susceptible to the most hackneyed platitudes of the critics that still imagine Lana Del Rey as the Sad-Eyed Crooner of the Hipsterlands. They’re still not right, of course, but hopefully her next album brings more vigorous reasons to disagree with them.
Published as part of Album Roundup — October 2021 | Part 3.