Sometime in 2019, Lana Del Rey became a piano ballad artist. For an artist who had traditionally drowned her vocals in reverb or added endless synths and strings as ornamentation, critics and haters alike were almost shocked to hear her voice in the front of the mix for “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” the stunning closer to Norman Fucking Rockwell!, her fifth album—and first universally acclaimed one. Over subtle and melodic piano chords from her collaborator and producer Jack Antonoff, Del Rey as Sylvia Plath says hi to her dad from the grave via her iPad. The piano backing suited Del Rey well, allowing her to weave her breathy vocals in and out of the piano chords—and create a haunting and even nihilistic effect on an album that was supposedly (at least partially) about Del Rey reflecting on “the sickness of this country,” along with toxic masculinity as both an intimate and cultural phenomenon. Building on the energy of “Change” from Lust For Life, her fourth album, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it” and NFR! as a whole introduced the next stage of Del Rey’s career: that of a piano ballad alt pop star.
That Del Rey opens her sixth and latest album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club, with not one but two piano ballads signals how much she’s embraced her newfound strength as a piano singer. On opener “White Dress,” Del Rey sets the tone for the entire album by singing in her head-iest voice/highest falsetto so far; on “Chemtrails,” meanwhile, Del Rey sings over piano chords and, later, a swelling or strings that recall the kind of aural ornateness that so heavily categorized her contentious debut, Born To Die. These tracks are stunning not only for Del Rey’s vocal performances but also for their lyrical nuance: recalling how she felt most empowered when men were looking at her in a tight waitress dress while she was struggling at the beginning of her career on “White Dress” and using conspiracy theories as a metaphor for life in the suburbs on “Chemtrails.” Working again with Antoff, her best collaborator and producer thus far, Chemtrails is a refinement—and expansion of—the piano ballads closing her two previous albums. Listeners hoping for another grandiose statement following NFR! will be disappointed here, as will those who have been critical of the mid tempo range that Del Rey’s songs have tended to hover around for her entire discography. But for people who relish in their favorite artists refining—and subtly expanding—their craft from album to album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club is aural candy, one that ages well with time, like a really good bourbon that releases new flavors and layers.
After the explicit turn towards the macro and micro effects of toxic white masculinity of side B of Lust For Life and all of NFR!, Chemtrails might strike the listener as a retreat from this political cognizance. But when we consider how women sharing their internal lives is still a political act as conservatives continue to try to control our bodies, the album’s intimacy offers its own kind of politics. As on NFR!, this intimacy occurs at the intersection of Del Rey’s narration coupled with contemporary commentary. “Baby what’s your sign?/ My moon’s in Leo, my Cancer is sun,” Del Rey sings multiple times on “Chemtrails.” Like “The culture is lit, but I’ve had a ball” on “The greatest” from NFR!, these lines culturally mark the album in a particular moment in time, with a reference that will affectively resonate with those who are around Del Rey’s age. With the meteoric rise of social justice astrologers such as Chani Nicholas, Millennials and Gen Z-ers, particularly queers, people of color, and/or women, continue to turn to astrology to make sense of the second recession/depression/pandemic of our adult lifetimes. Like most of Chemtrails, this reference is subtle. At the same time, Del Rey’s grounding in her historical moment matters, even as we also must hold it together with the artist’s continued problematic comments about women of color in America, particularly Black and Brown female artists.
Of course, there are still ample moments of reverb and trap drum machine beats here too, as is the case with standout track “Dark But Just A Game.” Although it sounds like something that could have sonically fit on Lust For Life or even Born To Die, Del Rey’s sharpened songwriting—along with Antonoff’s musicking and production—make it feel at home here. The song begins with a guitar strum and Del Rey’s vocals. After delivering the lines, “And that’s the price of fame/ A tale as old as time you’d be (Sweet or whatever, baby),” the drum machine kicks in, quietly keeping time behind Del Rey’s vocals. At the chorus, the drum machine drops out and the guitar fades into the background with some light cymbal crashes, amplifying Del Rey singing in her deeper range vocals (a rarity for a LDR album that Del Rey will repeat in the whimsical, Fiona Apple-esque bridge for “Dance Till We Die”). After a quick piano interlude, the drum machine and guitar come roaring back in for the second verse, where Del Rey sings the poignant lines, “I was a pretty little thing and God, I loved to sing/ But nothing came from either one but pain (But fuck it).” In multiple reviews, this is the song through which critics have made the case that Chemtrails is a “serious” reflection on the high cost of fame—and therefore just as worthy as NFR! In the context of the intimacy of Chemtrails, “Dark” is one of Del Rey’s strongest tracks so far.
Nevertheless, we can’t talk about this album without also talking about its album cover, along with the controversy around it and everything else that Del Rey publicly said or did in the year between her “Question for the Culture” essay and the release of Chemtrails. As I wrote in my essay about the artist for the Los Angeles Review of Books last summer, Del Rey has long been our petri dish for working through how much American popular culture has been influenced by—and sometimes outright steals from—Black cultural practice. What was so painful about her “Question for the Culture” essay (and detracted from the more insightful points within it) is how Del Rey dragged Black and Brown female pop stars back into stereotypes of hypersexuality. If the album cover of Chemtrails is meant to pave over all of this, then it at best half accomplishes it, as in the format of a black and white photo even the (few) women of color in the image appear very light-skinned or even whitewashed. In one of my favorites of the Bernie Sanders mittens memes from January, our fearless political leader sits photoshopped into the table of light-skinned women. When I reposted the image to my Instagram, I joked with friends that Bernie was sitting down at the table to talk to Del Rey about what racial justice-oriented solidarity looks like. Nevertheless, I am reminded of a question that a prominent feminist music writer recently raised in my Alternative Journalism class: Are pop stars the best equipped people to talk about race in Amerca in 2021? And, if it is inevitably a part of their job in 2020s pop culture, then how can we help hold them accountable? Whatever the case, they are, like many of us, having to do this learning in public.
This leads me to one of the most earworm-y but peculiar refrains on the album: Del Rey’s utterance of some variation of “We’re white hot forever and ever and ever, amen” on “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” the third track on the album. In the most generous reading possible, this refrain talks back to opening track “White Dress,” where Del Rey sings, “Listening to White Stripes, when they were white-hot/ Listening to rock all day long” in the second verse, quickly adding “I wasn’t famous, just listening to Kings of Leon, to the beat” in the chorus. As someone who’s only a couple of years younger than Del Rey, I, too, remember my first experiences of listening to the White Stripes, during my sophomore year of high school. Having grown up on mid- to late 90s hip hop, r&b, and pop, the White Stripes were the first rock band who felt like my own. They were, in retrospect, also my introduction to the blues. Without a cool parent or sibling or cousin or friend to introduce me to music from the 60s or 70s (or, hell, anything from the 1920s), the white, midwestern White Stripes were my gateway to listening to Black blues artists. Was this perhaps the case for Del Rey as well? On Chemtrails, as on her previous albums, Del Rey’s namedropping tends to center around white female artists, minus the occasional Bob Dylan reference or shoutout to a classic white male author. On “Dance Till We Die” on this album, this continues to be the case, as Del Rey shouts out a group of women who have created space for her and/or with whom she has collaborated: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Stevie Nicks, Courtney Love. And all of these artists were, perhaps not surprisingly, incredibly influenced by the blues, as Del Rey has also been. What, then, do we make of that?
The moments when Del Rey specifically names Black artists are always some of the most fascinating spots in her discography. To close out Ultraviolence (her second album), Del Rey covered Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman;” to close out Honeymoon (her third album), meanwhile, Del Rey covered Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” When feeling misunderstood in the first half of her discography, Del Rey turned to Nina Simone or Billie Holiday—both Black female artists who transgressed boundaries of genre—to articulate her out-of-place-ness. On Chemtrails, this reference to out of place Black artists comes early, when Del Rey sings “Like Sun Ra, feel small/ But I had it under control every time” in the first verse on “White Dress.” On a song and album that are supposedly about Del Rey imagining that she had never become famous, these are striking, yet somewhat confusing, lyrics. In 1974, Sun Ra starred in the film Space is the Place. In the film, he advocated that African Americans in the Bay Area escape the ongoing anti-Black racism and socioeconomic oppression of being Black people in America by relocating to a distant planet where they can live on their own terms. In one of the most famous lines from the film, Sun Ra declares, “The music is different here. The vibrations are different here.”
For her entire career, Del Rey has painted herself as a misunderstood artistic genius, disconnected from both the big pop machine and the cool indie kids. Del Rey invokes Sun Ra from this place, even if this reference falls flat given her public presence of the past year—and makes me wish, now more than ever, that would make some kind of meaningful apology to all the women of color she dragged in “Question for the Culture.” This, however, is the conundrum of being a Lana Del Rey fan: we must hold both her always musically and vocally beautiful music with the uglier things she has said—and what all that reveals about the ugliness of America. As I wrote last summer, I still believe that this responsibility to culturally fix America has disproportionately fallen on Del Rey. But if her beautiful music is not to carry an ugly taint, then she needs to grow beyond the self-referentiality of using these Black cultural references.
Then again, maybe we should let a “girl do the best she can,” as Del Rey sings on “Mariners Apartment Complex” on NFR! Of all the songs here, “Yosemite” is one of the most Lana songs so far, along with one of her most interesting uses of California as a metaphor across all six LPs and one EP. “Seasons may change/ But we won’t change/ Isn’t it sweet how we know that already?” Del Rey sings over a Spanish guitar-tinged strum. While this song is, supposedly, about a romantic relationship, it’s hard not to also hear the song as a hope that we can still hold onto some sense of who we are (or, who we’ve thought we’ve always been) after the pandemic, that we might be a solid as something like Yosemite. “The only thing we’ll turn is the pages of all the poems we burned,” Del Rey sings in the next verse—and it is one of her best lines on Chemtrails.
“Yosemite” is also interesting for how it references another song with a similar theme, “Change,” the last-minute piano ballad addition to Lust For Life. “Change is a powerful thing, I feel it comin’ in me,” Del Rey sings in that chorus, only six months removed from her call to cast a collective hex on Donald Trump. The mention of “poems” also recalls “Burnt Norton” from Honeymoon, which consists solely of Del Rey reading a T.S. Eliot poem of the same name against some music. What “Yosemite” confirms is how much Lana Del Rey has been both a referential project and a self-referential project, interweaving lines, shout outs, and/or melodies to her heroes have gone before her with ongoing references to her entire discography. “No more candle in the wind” Del Rey sings on “Tulsa Jesus Freak” and “Yosemite” (and “Mariners Apartment Complex” on NFR!), breathing continued new life into the Elton John line. When all of our candles have burned out, who are we then? This is the question at the heart of Chemtrails, no matter how messily Del Rey keeps trying to push us all there.
This piece is part of the on-going series “The Social and Political Commentary of Music Reviews,” which is part of an Alternative Journalism course at Tulane University taught by Dr. Christine Capetola.