Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club

[Interscope; 2021]

A decade into stardom and it feels like we still don’t really know Lana Del Rey. We know what she wants us to know. She’s mysterious for the sake of being mysterious, she’s polarizing for the sake of being polarizing. In her public persona she shoots from the hip, fires off round after round like she’s Kanye and almost as problematic. In her music, she’s a tourist of genres – but no more than Taylor Swift is. Her legions of tween fans would lay their lives on the line if it meant Lana could avoid a hangnail. This devotion to her off-brand quasi-alt-pop persona is disturbingly expected in the modern day. The persona that she says doesn’t exist, mind you.

There are no more Radioheads these days – bands that can produce classic after classic in both the public and critical eye. So, tasking an artist, especially one as controversial as Lana Del Rey, to follow-up her beloved sixth album Norman Fucking Rockwell! with something equally resonant was going to be a futile operation. Chemtrails Over the Country Club is nowhere near as diverse as its predecessor – nor is it intended to be. Harnessing her uncanny doppelgänger characteristics – i.e. her ability to steal the sound of others, per her detractors – Del Rey has shifted from the relative complexity of NFR! to a straight-up singer-songwriter album. How much of it is she writing? Who knows. Those who may have expected NFR! to be a fluke may be vindicated, since Chemtrails is nothing like it.

What Chemtrails does do correctly, though, is add more fuel to the fire for America’s strangest pop superstar. Although ‘pop superstar’ isn’t necessarily accurate for Lana Del Rey; she’s not a Billboard darling, she’s a streaming goddess. She’s essentially critic-proof at this point – nothing anyone says will deter her fanbase who have held onto her since her re-branding on her 2012 ‘debut’ Born to Die. Regardless, there’s no denying that Del Rey is a star in her own right.

This is part of what makes Chemtrails such a bizarre album. With NFR! she tapped into a different base; she managed to bring those who couldn’t stand her morose demeanor and label-grown platform into the fold as fans. Now, instead of going one step further and combining the best parts of NFR! with the style of Born to Die or Ultraviolence, in true Lana fashion, she makes a coffeehouse-appropriate album that contains almost none of what made her last album transcend. She’s taken a stab at a not-quite-minimalist, not-quite-folk approach. In fact, save for a few tracks towards the end, Chemtrails is a homogenous listen that’ll breeze by if you’re not careful.

She’s brought Jack Antonoff along for most of the record, which may surprise, considering how significantly different it sounds to NFR!. In place of the melodically overpowering substance of a song like “The Greatest” and the psychedelic elements heard on songs like “Venice Bitch”, we have somber piano keys married to boozy twang on the rollicking “Dance Till We Die” and a heartfelt send up of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” to close out the record, with some lovely assists from Weyes Blood and Zella Day. This might be pop-suicide, it might be manufactured – hell, it might even be absolute trash, but if so, it’s glorious trash. It’s hard to tell just what Lana Del Rey believes in on Chemtrails because of how grey the album is. She’s essentially like a moderate politician, flipping back and forth depending on the breeze.

The opening “White Dress” finds Del Rey revisiting the tired ‘older man meets young girl’ story that she’s reflected on numerous times. It’s not so much a strange way to start an album, more like an unnecessary retread that feels more about rhyming awkwardly than maintaining coherence, as she references Kings of Leon and the White Stripes, business conferences, waitressing, and anything else that she can fill in the blanks with. There’s subtle trip-hop, not unlike Portishead, unashamedly stuffed in front of the meat of “Tulsa Jesus Freak”, while Del Rey repeats “White hot forever / white hot forever,” which was the working title for this album she divulged back in 2019, but has no relation to the rest of the song. This isn’t even Del Rey at her most criminal, as the only concept behind Chemtrails – if there can be said to be one – seems to be based on word associations that don’t even seem relevant. Such is the prerogative of Lana Del Rey; she’s her own anti-pattern.

In public she demands that we accept her as chic and trendy, and that she’s from the big city, but in her music she wants to portray a persona that “comes from a small town,” as on “Let Me Love You Like a Woman”. On the one hand she’s luxurious, but on the other she’s down to Earth. Two sides of the same coin, tapping into those dreams of small-town nobodies who hunger for the chance to break free. She hails from upstate New York though, and went to Fordham University – Midwest town girl she is not. But Del Rey rips off those she admires, regardless of background. What’s more, she’s not ashamed of it, and she’s not above lying to her audience to tell a story, which is what makes the choice of covering Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” a compelling one.

Whatever the case may be for Del Rey’s persona, nothing negates the fact that she can still write songs that are just as emotive as she is, and the second half of Chemtrails is ultimately one of her strongest runs. “Dark But Just a Game” reintroduces those trip-hop elements she lifts from her influences with ease, and she manages to make it her own with the signature drug quips and her malleable harmonies. Who cares what it’s about or if what she’s saying is even true, it’s a noteworthy moment for the same woman who released a song called “Diet Mountain Dew”.

This isn’t a victory lap for Del Rey, and it shouldn’t even be considered anything of the sort. No one knows what it’s supposed to be. It’s a punchline to a joke only Lana Del Rey knows. This is how she’s able to maintain this façade through songs like “Yosemite”, where her she envisions herself as the tragic princess, but with her own sense of fragility and misunderstandings. It’s pulpy bullshit that she’s peddling, but she’s doing it so well that she believes it herself, which is really the only thing important with a lie these days. This image of herself is even further fleshed out with the help of rising country star Nikki Lane on “Breaking Up Slowly”, where the two gestate on a tough decision that ultimately depicts them as heartbreakers who can’t be contained.

Chemtrails comes across strategically perplexing. At the very least, NFR! seemed to follow a central theme about this new American Dream that was bubbling up. Seemingly, she wants this album to be part of the fabric of small-town America; pretty wallpaper on a double wide trailer or a glorious rose garden in front of a Chuck-E-Cheese turned meth lab. She intends to blur the image for those who think they know Lana Del Rey, but offers a winking eye to her die-hard fans who naturally uncover all the truths in her music, as if she wrote it specifically for them. For better or worse, Chemtrails Over The Country Club is 100% a Lana Del Rey record that fits quaintly into her discography. Anyone following her up to this point shouldn’t bat an eye at how sharp of a left turn this is compared to her previous album. She’s absurdly contrived, but the allure is far too captivating to look away.