Lana ditches the sugar daddies for memories of an independent youth.
Announced the day her last album, and masterpiece, the 2019 Grammy-nominated Norman Fucking Rockwell!, was released, the seventh studio album from one of the most enigmatic and idiosyncratic voices in contemporary pop music, Elizabeth Grant, a.k.a. Lana Del Rey, finally saw the light of day on Friday 19 March 2021. Chemtrails Over The Country Club comes after several pandemic-induced delays, a title change (so long, White Hot Forever), and a promotional campaign in which the actual music was overshadowed by a sea of ill-advised Instagram stories that saw the singer getting herself into (and subsequently trying to get herself out of) accusations of racism.
So what about the music, then? Chemtrails Over The Country Club, or COCC, as Del Rey’s fans have lovingly chosen to abbreviate it, is a slice of gentle Americana. Co-produced by Lana and Jack Antonoff (favourite of the indie scene and fresh from overseeing Taylor Swift’s new cottagecore sound), COCC has the shortest runtime of any of the singer’s albums, comprising of 11 tracks over 45 minutes, although it certainly doesn’t always feel that way.
Things start on a high note with White Dress, an opener simultaneously hushed and triumphant, in which Del Rey wistfully looks back at the careless days of youth, breathlessly whispering about working as a waitress, a ‘Men in Music Business Conference’ in Orlando, and what was playing on her iPod at the time (Sun Ra, The White Stripes, Kings of Leon), backed only by muted guitar, piano, and drums. It’s a worthy new entry into Lana’s tradition of having phenomenal, often theatrical, album openers (Born to Die, Cruel World, Honeymoon, Love, Norman Fucking Rockwell), setting the stage for a considerably more laid-back album than its direct predecessor. There are no 10-minute psychedelic freak-outs à la Venice Bitch or driving-into-the-apocalypse-crescendos in the vein of The greatest to be found here; instead, the album ticks along in a gently enveloping, borderline slowcore sway that reveals hidden layers on repeated listens.
Even the title track and Let Me Love You Like A Woman, both kind of non-events when released as singles, integrate themselves smoothly into the fabric of the album – although the latter is probably the weakest of all the tracks; a sedate piece, even by Lana’s standards, that only briefly snaps out of its lethargy in a Prince-quoting bridge. The songs on either end of COCC fare much better: Tulsa Jesus Freak, with autotune as sweet as candy floss, has the ethereal glow of songs like Salvatore, Ultraviolence, or her break-out single Video Games, while Wild at Heart is appropriately Lynchian, Lana imbuing even the words “Insta thots” with poetic grace.
Speaking of Wild at Heart, the finger picking and tambourine on Yosemite actually evoke Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, made famous through its use in the 1990 David Lynch movie Del Rey is referencing. The style is representative of COCC’s second half, where the country twang grows more pronounced, but the individual songs also become harder to tell apart, some of them too languid for their own good. Not All Who Wander Are Lost, built around a stiff “wander lost/wanderlust” pun and not much else, would have been better off as a bonus track; Dance Till We Die at least has some tasteful horns and a bluesy bridge going for it.
The feature guests are also settled with some of the less remarkable songs here; Nashville country singer Nikki Lane lends some nasally vocals slightly reminiscent of Miley Cyrus to Breaking Up Slowly, while LA folk pop singers Weyes Blood and Zella Day join ranks again, after their wonderful joint single Holocene from earlier this year, for the closer For Free. Together with Lana, they cover Joni Mitchell, who’s obviously a huge influence for this album, but don’t do quite enough to make the song their own, thereby ending the record on a rather impersonal note.
In the Lana Del Rey catalogue, the album perhaps most closely resembles 2015’s Honeymoon, which similarly came on the heels of a career-high for the singer (2014’s Ultraviolence) that it couldn’t quite match in terms of consistency and cohesion, but that in its languorous summer-nights mood seems poised to be rediscovered by fans diving into the less flashy corners of her discography in the years down the line.
Lyrically, COCC offers more of the same, which isn’t a bad thing. At this point in her career, Lana has established a distinct songwriting voice, a mélange of nostalgic longing, map-hopping across the US (from Nebraska to Louisiana via Arkansas and back to good old California), and classic rock citations (“I’m coverin’ Joni and I’m dancin’ with Joan, Stevie is callin’ on the telephone”, “We could get lost in the purple rain”, “No more candle in the wind”) that is still at play here. But, be it out of a desire to ward off the allegations of anti-feminism and romanticising abuse that have followed her from the beginning, or simply due to artistic evolution, the album is light on the kind of provocative lyrics about sex and toxic relationships that characterised her earlier work, instead continuing in the romantic and vaguely optimistic singer-songwriter lane of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, to which it forms a quieter, less ostentatious companion piece.
The next album, by the way, has already been announced. Rock Candy Sweet is set to be released the 1 June, and according to the singer, will challenge the idea that her “career was built on cultural appropriation and glamorizing domestic abuse”.
Top Track: White Dress
Overall Rating: 7/10
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