Like much of Lana Del Rey’s music, #Chemtrails often bends backward to grasp at an elusive and irretrievable prelapsarian state
Album cover of Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Twitter @PopBase
On her sixth major-label album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, Lana Del Rey wants to get away from it all.
After her great, California-centric 2019 epic Norman _____ Rockwell! maybe she’s just craving a change of scenery: “I’m ready to leave LA and I want you to come,” she announces on the new album’s wanderlust first single, ‘Let Me Love You Like a Woman.’ Other Chemtrails songs name-check stop on an American road trip, from Yosemite National Park to Lincoln, Nebraska, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. But on some of the record’s most stirring moments, Del Rey seems to desire an even greater spiritual sense of oblivion: “I’m in the wind, I’m in the water, nobody’s son, nobody’s daughter,” she sings on the haunting title track, sounding blissfully untethered. During the album’s opening number, ‘White Dress,’ she pirouettes across the upper edge of her vocal register, her airy falsetto evaporating into the space around her like a fleeting, soon-to-be-illegible piece of skywriting.
One of the album’s several stunners, ‘White Dress’ is a melancholic, piano-driven tone poem that conjures the emotional intensity of Cat Power and reimagines a “simpler time” when the narrator was a 19-year-old night-shift server in — of all the places in Norman Rockwell’s America — Orlando, Florida. But she felt happy, capable: “When I was a server, wearing a white dress, like look how I do it, look how I got this.” The tempo is unhurried, and the song saves some of its most affecting revelations — “it kind of makes me feel like maybe I was better off” — for its unsettling final moments.
From the moment she emerged with the semi-anachronistic torch song ‘Video Games’ in 2011, Del Rey has always branded herself an old soul. Like much of her music, Chemtrails often bends backward to grasp at an elusive and irretrievable prelapsarian state. (As she put it on one of her best songs, 2019’s unofficial anthem ‘The Greatest,’ “nobody warns you before the fall.”) Sometimes the past she glorifies is mass-cultural (the muted, subtly auto-tuned ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ mines a Manson-family aesthetic similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood), but just as often on this record it is sharply personal, yearning for a lost time when making music was a carefree hobby and not Del Rey’s job. Throughout, Chemtrails finds her meditating on the value of her art, wondering if it’s too late to get back to the garden.
Fame is the album’s recurring boogeyman, most explicitly on the languidly guitar-driven ‘Dark but Just a Game,’ which Del Rey has said takes its name from something her producer Jack Antonoff said to her while they were musing about the tragic fates of so many stars. (Chemtrails reunites Del Rey with Antonoff, who coproduced Norman with her and once again gives her billowing voice the appropriate amount of compositional elbow room.) “The cameras have flashes, they cause the car crashes,” she sings on the gently surging ‘Wild at Heart’ — another highlight. On two other occasions, she references ‘Candle in the Wind,’ that mass-cult elegy that Elton John barely needed to rework to fit the fates of both Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana.
Easy as it can be to forget, though, the particular slab of blue over the country club is hardly the entire sky. This finite perspective makes Chemtrails more of a minor offering than Norman _____ Rockwell!, which took big swings and often connected, capturing something that had been difficult to articulate about her generation’s larger sense of malaise. Perhaps to avoid repeating herself, Chemtrails finds Del Rey scaling back, seeking more insular insight.
When all of its virtues are working in tandem — rich melodies, compositional surprises, only-Lana-would-say-it turns of phrase — Del Rey’s music casts an engrossing spell. But in the moments when its tempos and timbres grow a bit repetitive, as they did on her sleepy 2015 album Honeymoon and do for a several-song stretch in the middle of this album, its limitations come into focus. ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost’ builds a chorus around bumper-sticker wisdom, while vague lyrics like “let me love you like a woman, let me hold you like a baby” lack the specificity of her better songs.
At best, Del Rey’s hyper-referential music convincingly recreates the particular feeling of encountering art in a postmodern age, when the past is so cluttered with worthwhile cultural artifacts that everything new reminds one, at least a little bit, of something old. But as she dances on that fine line between evoking and signifying, Del Rey sometimes risks outsourcing her profundity to things other artists have said more vividly before.
Such is the gamble of ending an album with a Joni Mitchell cover — though here that’s a risk Del Rey pulls off. On a gorgeous, reverent, and harmony-enlivened rendition of ‘For Free,’ she is joined by the musicians Zella Day and Natalie Mering (who records as Weyes Blood), and in Mitchell’s lines finds echoes with many of the questions she’s been pondering about the relative value of art and the distortions of fame. The song comes from Mitchell’s 1970 LP Ladies of the Canyon, but if Chemtrails has a kindred spirit in Mitchell’s discography, it’s 1972’s For the Roses, her own “leaving Los Angeles” album, which Mitchell composed in the solitude of her stone cottage on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia.
By the end of Chemtrails, though, Del Rey has found solace not in solitude but solidarity, specifically with other women. The album regains momentum on its final trio of songs, which are suddenly populated with other female voices and names. (In addition to Day and Mering on ‘For Free,’ Del Rey is joined by the country artist Nikki Lane on a song Lane wrote, ‘Breaking Up Slowly.’) The cathartic ‘Dancing Til We Die’ finds her doing a late-night Louisiana two-step with an imagined clique of her musical heroes, some of whom (Stevie Nicks, Joan Baez) Del Rey has already toured or collaborated with. “God, it feels good not to be alone,” she exhales, shortly before the faint, lonely sound of a horn drifts into the mix, as if from another bar down the road. Momentarily, it leaves its mark in the blue, and then just as quickly it’s gone.