Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Blue Banisters

[Polydor/Interscope; 2021]

For once, let’s give a look behind the curtain of Beats Per Minute…

Fridays are an especially busy day over at the office. With the week’s new releases coming in, the writers huddle around each other’s desks, listening in to the most anticipated albums, furiously making notes. By break time, there’s usually a bubble hanging around the watercooler, exchanging opinions and angles on what could potentially be an interesting piece of writing. Often, those positions differ, and individual perspectives add to a greater understanding, revealing shades to a work a different writer might have missed.

Now, last Friday marked a very special occasion, as it saw the release of Lana Del Rey’s new album, Blue Banisters. Like most big pop stars, Del Rey is somewhat of a controversial figure in the office, and the writers brought in their patented ‘Lana Bingo Cards’; sheets of paper with tropes or terms often found in the singer’s songs (most cards include ‘mention of word Daddy’ and ‘reference to The Velvet Underground’, while ‘reference to being high’ is only rarely to be found nowadays). The crowd huddles around our editor’s desk, as he presses PLAY first thing in the morning – and whoever first has ‘Bingo!’ is awarded the review. Not a bad deal.

However, last week, the crowd was smaller than last time around, when Chemtrails over the Country Club dropped earlier this year. While cherished colleague Tim Sentz found quite a lot to like about it, the record seemed to mostly fizzle out with the majority of the staff. From the decadent cover photo to the modest atmosphere, the record seemed like an afterthought to the swollen pathos of Norman Fucking Rockwell, her Jack Antonoff produced 2019 blockbuster. But then, as a group of us realized during a roundtable review of Lorde’s Solar Power, our collective views on NFR are also somewhat critical compared to the euphoria elsewhere, with many in the office praising the iconic singles and lush American iconography, but missing the dark, foggy, drunk atmosphere and mystical quality in Del Rey’s vocals that had swayed us in her early work.

And then, at the end of our Blue Banisters listening session, nobody of us had ‘Bingo!’. Which comes as just as much of a surprise as the fact that Blue Banisters is Lana’s best album since Ultraviolence. Sorry – spoilers: the singer’s eighth album is one of her very best and most innovative!

This innovation doesn’t necessarily come via the lyrics – a fact evidenced by the number of crosses on our ‘Bingo!’ cards. There’s references to “Bad girls”, and what they do, on “Black bathing Suit”; opener “Text Book” summons Del Rey’s image of the “Daddy”, the eternally serenaded father figure that can be found throughout her work as a vocalist; and there are also ample mentions of cars (“Arcadia”), truck drivers (“Blue Banisters”) and parking lots (“Black Bathing Suit”).

Yet, while the 4th of July pops up in “If You Wanna Lie Down With Me”, the main characteristic of Del Rey’s American landscape – beaches – remains absent. This could be due to the fact that the album is somewhat of a collection of songs Del Rey worked on throughout her career, based on her life and inner workings more than ever before. In other words: the record is comprised of songs the singer considered too intimate and personal, too odd, too strange. In this regard, it’s interesting that after posing with a man on the cover of NFR and women on Chemtrails, this time, Lana is accompanied by beasts on the record’s cover: two large German shepherds, which graze her side, one throwing a lazy gaze at the camera, the other alert, staring past the lens and to the side, ready to fend off unwelcome guests.

It would be a little far fetched to suggest the dogs function as spirit animals, but they certainly introduce the theme of a rough animal instinct to the project, absent in the singer’s oeuvre of recent years. Not every line has to be fully kempt, not every performance licked clean of flaw and flounder, not every shade of bruise covered by make-up. On the lyrical front, this can at times lead to slightly unfortunate moments, such as on “Arcadia”, where Del Rey, comparing her body to the American landscape and her lover’s hands to different car, types: “My chest, the Sierra Madre / My hips, every high and byway / That you trace with your fingertips like a Toyota / Run your hands over me like a Land Rover”. It’s a strange image in itself, and coupled with the faintly Badalamenti instrumental accompaniment it feels almost like Del Rey wanted to observe her own approach to writing and see how far she could take her symbolism until the faint veneer of romanticism breaks.

Similarly, her mentions of recent political and global events – a Black Lives Matter march and the pandemic – feel oddly out of place in the context in their own stories. In the latter case, found in “Violets for Roses” where she compares the end of a lockdown with the beginning of falling in love with oneself after a bad relationship, there just seems to be a strange distance to the apocalyptic imagery Del Rey so often invoked in the past. Is the end of the lockdown enough for us to rejoin over a broken landscape?

But in other places – and they happen to be the majority – the rawness pays off in incredible ways! The album’s standout comes in “Dealer”, the moody duet with Miles Kane, which has Lana shout full force over Kane’s Scott Walker bass: “I check it, I wreck it, and I’ll explain / I gave you all my money / I don’t wanna live / I don’t wanna give you nothing / ‘Cause you never give me nothing back”. It’s so nakedly embracing the twin pains of addiction and heartbreak, and performed with such unfiltered urgency that it marks her most charismatic performance since “Cruel World”.

There is also the incredible “If You Lie Down With Me”, which somewhat resembles a Grant Lee Buffalo song, and has Del Rey revisit the imagery of the drunken dance as a signifier of a somewhat dramatic relationship, singing “We were built for / The long haul freight train / Burnt by fire / Without trial like a stowaway”. The movement of bodies and drunken minds mix sex and dance, until it’s hard to tell what’s real, what’s an apparition and what’s delusion: “Light me up like the 4th of July / Once, twice, three times”. At the end of the track, a brass section joins in – it sounds as if the two have been in the ballroom of the Overlook Hotel for eternity, spinning ghosts haunted by the eternal repetition of their spectral struggle.

The drinks – and cosmic struggle with dissatisfaction – return in “Thunder”: “And you try to see the bright side when each new day begins / But you’re not satisfied at the rainbow’s end”. A gentle, darkly sombre song, it is reminiscent of The Gun Club’s “Idiot Waltz” and uses the studio as an instrument to great effect – the rumbling drums and Lana’s whisper by the end of the track are goosebump-inducing.

Contrasting the struggle with current day themes, “Black Bathing Suits” manages to pin down the melancholy of lonely lockdown afternoons, and the apocalyptic imagery returns in full form: “Grenadine quarantine, I like you a lot / It’s L.A., ‘Hey’ on Zoom, Target parking lot / And if this is the end, I want a boyfriend / Someone to eat ice cream with, and watch television”. Lana is, in her own words, “tired of this shit”, with a drunk choir coming in and her voice breaking by the end of the track. There’s no beaches, the bathing suit a somewhat mournful piece of memorabilia of decadence rendered impotent.

Similar apocalyptic imagery is inherent in “Wildflower Wildfire”, where the singer finds dual extremes to express her inner duality in physical manifestations. It also allows for some more autobiographical insight: “My father never stepped in / When his wife would rage at me / So I ended up awkward but sweet / Later than hospitals and still on my feet / Comfortably numb but with lithium came poetry”. It’s some of her best writing here, and allows for another incredible showcase of her raw talent as a vocalist.

“Living Legend” is another career highlight: situated somewhere between Neil Young, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., the song is a borderline violent declaration of unexpressed love: “Guns in the summertime and horses too / I never meant to be bad or unwell / I was just living on the edge / Right between Heaven and Hell”. It has what could be the greatest chorus melody of her career, her voice dropping when she finally admits her adoration, masquerading as a distorted guitar on the song’s outro.

Double that with her best closer in a long time in the gentle “Sweet Carolina”, characterised by sparkling piano notes dancing around Del Rey’s falsetto, and it becomes clear that Blue Banisters is a little backloaded, with an almost flawless second side (although “Cherry Blossom” and “Nectar of the Gods” feel a little like B-sides – nice, but a little inoffensive and lacking the impact).

Like previous Del Rey albums, the record could have lost some tracks and cut in at a perfect 45 minutes, which would have made it her best. Who needs a sampled interlude with beats, or another fairly sombre piano ballad that follows a more expansive and emotional one? But then, as she’s made very clear, Blue Banisters is somewhat of an unadorned record, renamed once, delayed twice, outside of the comfort zone associated with the singer and deeply personal. The selection seems to make sense to her, so perfection is unimportant.

If Norman Fucking Rockwell was the album that reigned in Del Rey’s darker aesthetics and provided lush Tom Waits-like backgrounds that her detractors could embrace, Blue Banisters has her voice break, has her shout or drop all the way to her lowest register to the point where it feels truly experimental. Yes, this will drive some away, and allow critics to easily point to its messiness (as if NFR wasn’t all over the place aesthetically – something Antonoff’s production homogeneity cleverly disguised – same with Lust for Life, or the underrated Born to Die), but it is also rewarding and surprising.

It will also reframe her previous work. Was the more conservative and pop Chemtrails devised to please the label and allow for less interference in the sudden follow up? Now that we see Del Rey at her most personal, exploratory and exciting – and difficult to like for those used to seeing musical creases ironed out – was the uniform response to previous albums already part of an approved narrative? Maybe this look behind Del Rey’s curtain is too much for those listeners – maybe they just aren’t able to stand the gaze of the German shepherd that stares back.