For a moment in 2019, Lana Del Rey was untouchable. Once a hugely beleaguered pop star, Del Rey seemed to find peace – both in herself and in the public eye – as the first decade of her career came to a close. There was less volatility in her relationship with the press and her music had slowly become more refined over the course of four increasingly well-received albums. The gruesome emotional violence of her early records was rendered slightly less hopeless and visceral.
That year, the release of her epic, politically charged fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, was treated as a kind of coronation by many who had previously considered her narcoleptic brand of California Gothic too pulpy, too camp. Critics anointed her as the next great American songwriter. Fans celebrated her newly minted visionary status. And the Grammys acknowledged the album and its title track in their Album and Song of the Year nominations – expletive, exclamation mark and all.
Del Rey – as both our greatest living taxonomist of celebrity and our greatest overquoter of Robert Frost poems – would be the first to tell you that nothing gold can stay. In the months following Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s release, the grand upward sweep of her career began to slip back from universal adoration.
Del Rey caused a number of minor scandals during the past 18 months. There was her retort to a critical analysis from the lauded writer Ann Powers, who found herself faced with the wrath of Del Rey’s fans; an open letter in which Del Rey compared herself to a handful of other, mostly Black, female pop stars, questioning why she was accused of “glamorising abuse” early in her career and they were not; two more letters, each addressing the backlash to the first; a video addressing the backlash to the first three letters, in which she compared herself to another Black pop star; an instore signing event in which she wore an open-weave mesh face mask; the release of an album cover featuring herself surrounded by a cadre of white-passing women, which arrived with a note pre-emptively defending the image from accusations of racism; and, finally, a radio interview in which she claimed that Donald Trump’s presidency was not an anomaly, but a symptom of the “world’s greatest problem”, “sociopathy and narcissism”.
This cascade of increasingly inane controversy led, predictably, to the emergence of a cottage industry of media ruthlessly “analysing” the controversy. I’m inclined to take her clarifications at face value, although I don’t begrudge other listeners for reaching the end of their tethers and parting ways.
If you can’t accept Del Rey at her word, perhaps you can accept that it’s nice to have complex, strange figures – or even outright villains – in the public eye, as opposed to a slate of poreless, textureless ciphers. It feels at times as if she acts out of a desire for what critic Hua Hsu, writing about the many gaffes of pop superstars Post Malone and Kanye West, once termed “the freedom to say whatever you want in the name of artistic vision; the freedom never to be misunderstood or misinterpreted; the freedom to do what you love simply because you love it”.
On Norman Fucking Rockwell! and its predecessors, freedom was less personal – less an end point than a reason to make the journey. That changes on Chemtrails over the Country Club, Del Rey’s sixth album. Stripping the Laurel Canyon folk and prog balladry of Norman Fucking Rockwell! back to its barest form, Chemtrails is an outright rejection of its predecessor’s airy, bird’s-eye-view grandeur.
In its place is Del Rey’s most searching and emotionally dank writing in many years – a dark night of the soul rendered as exquisite, ambient, sometimes aimless folk music. The warm-hued iconography of Del Rey’s past is gone: now, she’s haunted by wildfires, grand conspiracies, the spectre of a younger, less cynical Del Rey, whose innocence she can never reclaim.
Those attracted to Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s boldly drawn lines – the gracefully cresting arc of pop cultural elegy “The Greatest”, an earworm like “Oh god, miss you on my lips / It’s me, your little Venice bitch” – will find less to cling to in Chemtrails. These songs meander more than they soar, often stalling in order to sketch out detail, and sacrificing easy narrative or emotional arcs in the process. Take “White Dress”, the record’s opener: over a sparsely accompanied piano line from producer Jack Antonoff, Del Rey vividly recalls vignettes of her past – listening to “White Stripes when they were white hot”, burning up on a summer lawn. The song’s most memorable repeated passage barely constitutes a hook:
Down at the Men in Music Business conference
Down in Orlando I was only 19
Down at the Men in Music business conference
I only mention it ’cause it was such a scene
Del Rey says she freestyled these lyrics in front of the mic, and it certainly seems it – “White Dress” feels like it was performed and written in a reverie. (You can hear the crackle of a vape between verses.) It sets the tone for Chemtrails, which opts to explore smaller, stranger images, even when given the option to go expansive and Technicolor.
There are notable exceptions. The cloudy sky above “Wild at Heart” breaks open for a second, allowing one glorious, warming ray through, while “Dark but Just a Game” wades out of trip-hop muck into an elegant, Beatles-style march. Both songs deal with the pressures of fame and public expectation and only reform into traditional pop structures once their emotional riddles have been solved.
This hasn’t always been Del Rey’s way. As pop stars have become less iconic and pop songs have become more like autofiction – think of the anonymous producer named nothing, nowhere releasing a hit called “Fake Friend” – Del Rey has tended to swing in the opposite direction, becoming bolder and more combative and pushing her images to be larger and more universal. Norman Fucking Rockwell! was a natural peak of that trend, and on Chemtrails her writing snaps back like a rubber band.
This album has most in common with Del Rey’s mid-career works – the dirge-like, ecstatic Ultraviolence and the morbidly slow Honeymoon – and confirms that her two most-cited albums, her debut Born to Die and Norman Fucking Rockwell!, are anomalies. In tandem with the album’s melodic loosening, the lyrics here are poetic, free-associative, more conversational than they’ve ever been and more similar in tone to Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass, last year’s spoken word poetry record, than any of Del Rey’s musical albums. The scenes sketched here are as beautiful as they’ve ever been, but also foggier, less immediately recognisable: “Smoking cigarettes to understand the smog” of LA; talking shit and downing pink champagne; suburban teens dancing in hoodies.
In its most affecting moments, Chemtrails finds Del Rey trying to build a sense of community. Although she’s often felt out of step – one of Del Rey’s first serious pieces of critical praise described her as “not part of a scene, with no serious imitators – and … lonely” – here she places herself in a lineage of meditative, mournful female songwriters. The gorgeous “Breaking Up Slowly” cedes much of its runtime to a husky, yearning vocal performance from the country singer Nikki Lane, whose world-weary plea of “I don’t wanna end up like Tammy Wynette” reverberates long after it’s gone. On “Dance ’til We Die” – a light at the end of the tunnel after an album’s worth of soul-searching – Del Rey takes a rare pause to luxuriate in the warmth of her friendships:
I’m covering Joni and I’m dancing with Joan
Stevie’s calling on the telephone
Court almost burned down my home
But god, it feels good not to be alone.
The invocations are a little ham-fisted, but they’re rare moments of unguarded joy on an album often heavy with the leaden weight of solitude. And they’re not unearned: these singers feel more like peers of Del Rey than any contemporary stars. The Joni Mitchell cover “For Free” closes the album, and here again Del Rey makes room for other vocalists, sharing verses with her friends: the songwriters Natalie Mering, who records as Weyes Blood, and Zella Day.
“For Free” is one of Mitchell’s earliest songs about the pressures and strictures of fame, a sweet but melancholy meditation on a busker playing for nothing except the joy of it. It’s easy to see why Del Rey was drawn to it – to play “real good for free”, surrounded by friends and collaborators rather than rubberneckers or commentators, is to be, once again, untouchable.
EXHIBITION Yhonnie Scarce: Missile Park
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until June 14
CULTURE Steam Dreams: The Japanese Public Bath
Japan Foundation, Sydney, until May 22
MULTIMEDIA Stanislava Pinchuk: Terra Data
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until June 20
VISUAL ART Revealed: New and Emerging WA Aboriginal Artists
Fremantle Arts Centre, until May 23
MULTIMEDIA Leaving LA: Tee Ken Ng and Tim Minchin
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until April 26
HoMie Warehouse, Melbourne, until March 28
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 27, 2021 as "Dank conspiracies".
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