On the morning of January 11th, as she ate a popsicle for breakfast with a newly broken arm, Lana Del Rey tumbled into nearly 40 somersaulting minutes of free-associative responses to questions from BBC Radio 1 presenter Annie Mac. On live radio, the pop star parkoured from thoughts on Trump’s presidency to going to the farmer’s market barefoot to how she’d characterize at least half of her friends as jerks. Finally, her frisson found a foothold in the psychology behind the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that had taken place six days earlier. Partway through clarifying how she felt Trump’s “sociopathy” may have unintentionally inspired the deadly siege, she cleared her throat to show her conviction. “I actually think this is the most important thing I’ll say in this interview,” she underscored. “For people who stormed the Capitol, it’s dissociated rage. They want to wild out somewhere! It’s like, we don’t know how to find the ways to be wild in our world….and at the same time, the world is so wild.”
In or out of context, this is an entirely fair analysis. With rare exception, the strange tradition of having celebrities act like talking heads on matters of national politics or domestic terrorism is both a largely pointless and joyless spectacle. But Lana’s monologue about the neuroses plaguing the United States was genuinely fascinating—for two reasons.
The first is that, for the past decade, Lana has been an exceptional hunter-gatherer of white American arcana. In 2011, she emerged as an aesthetic howitzer, exploding a broad but deeply personal index of iconography into her own nation of death-driven kitsch. It was Xanadu, built from a blissful, degenerate, high-femme sort of jingoism. Geographies—the Hollywood sign, the tri-state, California writ large—became mythological playgrounds for her to languor around and smoke Parliaments on. Marilyn Monroe, men in training yards, cherry pies, a Pleasantville middle-class, Coachella, violence-as-romance and romance-as-violence: she offered us a canon of heritage markers recast in ’10s-era drama and became the rare sort of talent that was able to congeal past and present into seductively conceptual cinema. With time and refinement, Lana Del Rey had mushroomed into what we called the next best American songwriter—emphasis on American.
The second reason was more obvious. The original purpose of the BBC interview was to promote her newly released single titled “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” and the album that shares its name. Whether meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a joke, or not one at all, the title’s flawless alignment with the mood and mien of that moment—the conspiracy-mindedness, the radiant gloom, the fragility, and the suggestion of the type of person associated with the words “country club”—was an act of poetry. It was remarkable to hear the bard of white American malaise suggest which delusion was gripping the nation.
Two months later, Miss America’s latest text has emerged, and Chemtrails Over the Country Club is definitely both wild and incredibly American, the twin tenets of her empire. In 2017, Lana told Pitchfork that the American flag was no longer going to be a part of her live performances for fear of indicating national pride during the Trump era, but there was still one billowing on the cover of 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and there may as well be one on the front of Chemtrails as well. (There actually is a flag hidden on the back.) She can’t help it: No muse speaks louder to Lana than the promised land, where cities are metaphors, its dead are its gods, and she, its glamorous Orpheus.
Like most labeled among the “greatest” of their realm, Lana Del Rey is focused on conquest. Here I mean that literally, in terms of acreage: Where her previous albums were rooted mostly on the coasts, her sixth record reaches prominently toward the center of the nation, warmed by the yeasty heat of the heartland. She goes to Arkansas and Nebraska and Oklahoma, narrates life as a waitress, lauds Jesus erotically, and affects a little twang. It is her most rangy album—her folksiest, her singer-songwriter-iest—and takes us physically further and deeper into her crystal vision of the country. If Norman Fucking Rockwell! was broadly interpreted as her “obituary for America,” this one might be her purest paean to it.
Depending on your mileage with her mythos, there are a few different entry points into Chemtrails. Likely because this is an album with a jumble of at least a few former-outtakes and entirely new cuts, Chemtrails is generous inasmuch as each song seems to work like a point on a timeline, correlating toward a version of Lana from periods past or present. Despite how often her body of work seems to loop back on itself into one slowly-growing Möbius of intertext—Bob Dylan lyrics, Elton John lyrics, countless mentions of California, jewels, the price of fame, roses, thorns—placing these tracks along her continuum is rewarding.
For those who found solace in Norman Fucking Rockwell’s sincerity—that quality that made her less of a fabulist and more of a protagonist—“Wild at Heart” represents the Lana myth at its most hard-boiled. The song begins on Sunset Boulevard. The melody is as if “How to Disappear” and “Love Song”—two of NFR’s most plaintive ballads—were put into a blender. The references are Lynchian, but only at a slant: There is nothing of Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage’s skull-crushing vim from the auteur’s movie by the same name, but the soapy storyline does smack of the film’s strangely glib tenderness. There is a lot of cigarette smoking, peripatetic wandering, and firm declarations of being seductively fucked-up. “If you love me, you love me,” she assures, “because I’m wild at heart.” Welcome back to Lanaland.
What Proust did for scent, Lana does for American spaces. She wanders through cities, breathes in the air just to get a sense of it, then drifts on. She travels east from L.A. to “Yosemite.” The opener “White Dress” introduces some adult alternative radio digestibility into the sound, a little bit of Jewel in the sparse drumming and the uniquely squeezed, head-voice heroics that we’ve not heard from her before. But she’s in Orlando then, a city of transience, sticky heat, and languishing in her desire to be anywhere else. Texas is buried inside “Breaking Up Slowly,” a torchy piece sung in an outlaw tenor. It calls upon the dissolution of the greatest twosome known to country—Tammy Wynette and George Jones—as a thematic fulcrum, but what she does more plainly in her duet with Nikki Lane is suggest country’s token lawlessness—the freedom of not knowing what to do or where to go next.
Her reverence for Wynette makes a lot of sense. Lana kept one of Wynette’s albums in the studio with her as she recorded her album (“I always have Tammy with me,” she said), likely as both spiritual and lyrical guidance. It’s almost too on-the-nose: Wynette’s biggest hit, “Stand By Your Man,” is a ballad that celebrates a particularly outmoded strain of womanly steadfastness in the face of difficult love—a sorrowful get-it-together mantra that seems more like a rationalization than a reminder. Lana’s “Let Me Love You Like a Woman” is its psychic twin—not country in sound but in aura, a tribute to the now-taboo thrills of traditional submission.
It should be less surprising that there is so much God in this. For someone with so much worship for the nation under it, her relationship to God has been complicated. (“Me and God we don’t get along,” she sang in “Gods and Monsters.”). But Lana has done a lot of reckoning with higher powers as of late: “It made me feel like a God,” goes the moonglow refrain of “White Dress;” there’s a lot of “contemplating God” in “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” and “Tulsa Jesus Freak” is a full-on ultra-glam evangelical spectacle, lifted to heaven on the prosthetic wings of AutoTune.
The holiest spirit here, however, is her own. When she goes full Lana and gives in to her proclivity for near-embarrassing, entirely seductive, overwrought American beauty, it sounds divine. “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” is a ballad drawn directly from the Lana Del Rey vein, all honey sun, moneyed smiles, the pleasure of living lavishly. The video shows Lana in a diamanté mesh mask, looking a little like Hedy Lamarr in low fidelity, glancing sweetly from the driver’s seat of a mid-century Mercedes-Benz Cabriolet. Chemtrails dart overhead in crosshatch as Lana stares up with widened eyes. Whether or not she actually believes in covert geoengineering is entirely irrelevant: it’s the idea behind them she’s in love with. Like so many who find themselves alienated and disillusioned, she erects dreamworlds to inhabit, writes narratives that provide substance to a life that threatens to spiral without them. “I’m not unhinged or unhappy,” she declares. “I’m just wild.”
Her reassurances come with reason—few artists in recent memory have summoned more concern. Recall how intensely critics offered outsized meditations on the authenticity of her persona when she emerged in 2011 with Born to Die—they just didn’t believe what they saw. Her image as a volatile WASP cosplaying as a bourgeois-boheme obsessed with American kitsch—reviews practically demanded an apology for her image, or at least some crumb of irony, to match our cynicism. Who was more detached, us or her? Morally or aesthetically, it felt unreal—so she doubled-down, showing us how real and earnest she was. After Norman Fucking Rockwell, pop culture took her more seriously. And so she wrote a manifesto about her womanhood, which proposed a few clumsily-worded questions and asked for space and credit among choice women of color. She later tried to assure us—with some belligerence—that she has given people of color plenty of room at her table. Small infernos ensued.
These are not isolated wildfires. Lana has been chronically drawn to the combustible. Thematically, lyrically, and in reality, her voice has always been incendiary. The groundswell after the BBC interview—the post-interview, welly-eyed “fuck you” directed at media magazines and her detractors—I can think of no artist of her caliber who has drawn a more direct line between the self-abnegation of her pop persona and the person before us. There is no rule in place here, but when the artist’s being starts eclipsing their art, it becomes, for better or worse, part of their art too.
Lana the artist and Lana the woman have been extraordinarily compelling as of late. Not because it’s in any way satisfying to see such a singular talent gesture so blatantly toward her own fragility and fear—off her albums, at least—but because she consistently manages to reflect back a very particular portrait of the country she holds so close. Chemtrails’ vision may be roaming, but the artist’s remains impressively narrow. To paraphrase Lana, it is definitely difficult to articulate one’s wildness, especially for those so inherently wild at heart. What is lucid, though, is that Lana Del Rey’s inheritance has always been truly American—and everything we’ve seen in recent memory confirms how disarmingly, specifically American she’s become.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.