Lana Del Rey
Chemtrails Over the Country Club
Mar 19, 2021
It’s difficult to think of an artist who had more of an ascent to critical, commercial, and conversational acclaim than Lana Del Rey did in the 2010s. Her debut album, Born to Die, smashed sales records upon release in early 2012 but was met with a more-than-lukewarm hesitancy from critics. Allegations of her being an “industry plant” circulated, in much the same way they have done more recently with artists like Billie Eilish, a criticism that seems to be shorthand for a female singer/songwriter who does something interesting and seamlessly accumulates a large, devoted fanbase from the jump.
As she moved through the decade, records arrived with alarming frequency. Ultraviolence, Honeymoon, and Lust for Life all appeared within five years of her debut’s release, with each offering subtle variations on the crumbling, decaying-Hollywood aesthetic in which Del Rey, as a character, thrives. She moved on from the highly orchestrated suites of her debut album to the alt-rock monochrome of her sophomore release. A year later, Honeymoon was a sunshine-baked meditation on the hyper-loneliness of an over-stylized Californian existence, something she’d double down on, with the help of a diverse array of friends, on her next record, Lust for Life.
By the time she returned in 2019 for the release of Norman F**king Rockwell, the world was at her feet, and yet she still surpassed expectations, crafting her most complete record to date, full of a sonic maturity and boundless creative appetite. It was a late-in-the-day contender for album of the decade and saw many of those initial detractors being converted to unapologetic fans. The problem of “where do you go from there?” loomed large, though. As we moved further away from the brilliance of Norman F**king Rockwell, the task of getting anywhere close to its majesty seemed increasingly unlikely.
The release of the first couple of singles from her new record, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, brought with them praise and anxiety in equal measure. They eluded to a slight change of sonic tack, something which Del Rey’s career to date has seen her get increasingly comfortable doing, but they didn’t quite have the spark of “Mariner’s Apartment Complex” or “Venice Bitch,” both of which laid the foundations for Norman F**king Rockwell’s success.
But now comes time to assess Chemtrails Over the Country Club as a whole. Is it Norman F**king Rockwell 2.0? Is it the first disappointment of her career? Or does it take us in a new direction once more?
Thankfully, far from being a mere tale of crisis averted, Chemtrails Over the Country Club is a record of promising growth that also nods to her readily established artistic heritage. Right off the bat, with the opening song “White Dress,” we find Del Rey operating in a higher register than many fans will be readily accustomed to. Backed by delicate pianos, she paints pictures of her trademark nostalgic version of American ideals that, in the modern age, have turned into bitter facades, papering over the cracks of a country constantly at odds with its own sense of greatness.
The return of drum machine beats on “Tulsa Jesus Freak” harkens back to the more outlandish moments of Lust for Life, coated in the ethereal wispy melodies of Honeymoon. It isn’t a case of Del Rey exclusively retreading previously explored territory, however. Both of these tracks, through different vocal stylings and the (albeit slight) use of a vocoder à la Bon Iver, show Del Rey freely experimenting with her most distinctive instrument, her voice.
Keen to ensure it doesn’t become a record that overcomplicates her sound, the second half of the album opens with a couplet of tracks—“Not All Who Wander Are Lost” and “Yosemite”—that strip everything back to be essentially just a voice and an acoustic guitar. If you imagine Nancy Sinatra covering Joan Baez, you come pretty close to how these beautiful compositions sound. Closing out with some increasingly mature cuts that finish with the Weyes Blood-featuring “For Free,” Chemtrails Over the Country Club proves itself to be a worthy addition to the Lana Del Rey catalogue. For those turned off by her previous work, who deny its quality with lazy and ill-thought-through criticisms that “everything sounds the same,” there is not much available here that would seem to win them over. But that shouldn’t detract from the quality of the music on show here.
Following a career highpoint is something that can crush an artist. The weight of expectations can, understandably, result in them being unsure about what direction to move in, terrified of failure but similarly hell-bent in their refusal to tell the same tales as they did last time out. It is, for this reason, and in this context, that Chemtrails Over the Country Club proves to be so admirable, with Lana Del Rey, once again, proving herself to be an artist of unshakeable self-assuredness and an all-too-keen ear for what works in her own artistic toolkit. Whilst it isn’t the universal smash hit that Norman F**king Rockwell instantly was, you get the feeling that Chemtrails Over the Country Club is a slow burner, whose flame will ignite the next chapter of Del Rey’s career and all the many splendid opportunities that brings with it. (www.lanadelrey.com)
Author rating: 8/10
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