In less than a decade, Lana Del Rey has undergone a career’s worth of re-inventions: ditching her birth name for her cinematic studio debut, digging deep and going dark on the aptly named ‘Ultraviolence’, exploring hip hop influences on ‘Lust For Life’ and, getting political on her magnum opus ‘Norman F*cking Rockwell’. Each re-invention has been vital; turning a once widely-dismissed artist into one of the most enduring and influential artists of our time. Much of the reason for this is that each new album wasn’t just a re-invention, but an improvement; adding new layers and dimensions to Del Rey’s discography. 2019’s ‘NFR’ was the culmination of this process: it is, and probably always will be her best work; multi-layered, complex yet accessible and, utterly transcendent. No later than the release day of said album, she revealed she had already began working on her seventh studio album – then tentatively named ‘White Hot Forever’. As soon as her sixth album was released, the question was brought to forefront: ‘how can you possibly follow up this album?’ The answer? To try to recreate the album again? Or, alternatively to go back to your old sound; the one adored by fans but panned by critics?
The answer apparently is neither. While ‘Chemtrails’ certainly contains some similarities to ‘NFR’ (more on that later), with it’s thin production, introspective language and occasional jazz undertones, it would be remiss to call this album ‘NFR’ 2.0. That said, for the first time in her career, Del Rey’s latest album feels more like a refinement than a reinvention. Del Rey herself says on the album’s sixth track “I’m not gonna change” – a statement that feels particularly defiant after the string of controversies Del Rey has found herself in over the last year.
The first thing that stands out about ‘Chemtrails’ is how little effort it goes to the stand out; the album is incredibly understated: the only remotely comparable album in Del Rey’s discography in this sense is 2015’s ‘Honeymoon’. While ‘NFR’ captured listeners attention instantaneously with it’s very first line (“Goddamn, man-child / You f*cked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you'”), Del Rey instead declares on the first line of ‘Chemtrails’ opener ‘White Dress’ that she “don’t care”.
The ways the album does catch your attention often feel entirely left-field and not intentionally eyebrow-raising; like the way she squeezes the phrase “men in music business conference” into three syllables or the way ‘Breaking Up Slowly’ starts by sounding nothing like the rest of the album.
Often you can tell a lot about what a Lana Del Rey record will be like from the album’s title. ‘Born To Die’ was, as it’s title suggests, fatalistic, while ‘Ultraviolence’ was – and remains – her darkest work to date. ‘Lust For Life’, as the title and album cover – which depicted a beaming Del Rey – suggest contained some of her most hopeful lyricism to date. ‘NFR’ meanwhile, with it’s casual usage of the F-bomb in the same utterance as Norman Rockwell – whose work epitomised American culture – showcased her newfound critical perspective on her country.
In this sense, ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’ is a rather deceptive title. The album’s title which contrasts great wealth (the country club) with the epidemic of misinformation and lies American finds itself in the midst of (like the chemtrails conspiracy) is the biggest political statement of this album. Instead, ‘Chemtrails’ finds Del Rey examining something even more allusive than the fundamental truth of America; the truth of herself – a topic debated by critics and commentators until they’re blue in the face, without any resolution.
Del Rey’s seventh studio album certainly is her most complex, multi-layered presentation of herself to date. While the Del Rey of past often fell into the habit of typecasting herself as the prototypical bad boy obsessed femme fatale, ‘Chemtrails’ sees Del Rey more fully contemplate the complexities of her being. Del Rey still has a penchant for those she knows she should probably steer clear of (“I love you a lot, despite the odds / You’re killing me, Joe”), but no longer is she content to remain submissive; her fate depending on the actions of others. On lead single ‘Let Me Love You Like A Woman’, Del Rey finds herself in a dominant position, offering to hold a lover “like a baby”, while remaining resolute that while she’d like them to move away from L.A. with her, she “could manage if [they] stay”.
The best moments of ‘Chemtrails’ occur when Del Rey builds on the sound of ‘NFR!’ – not copying it, yet not abandoning it either’. ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ comes the closest to recreating the transcendent sound of her magnum opus, but does so by adding newfound elements of jazz and R&B into the mix. ‘Dark But Just a Game’, meanwhile makes the same quietly cutting critiques of, and references to, celebrity as were seen on ‘NFR’ (“The faces aren’t the same, But their stories all end tragically…. The best ones lost their mind”), but ends on a less fatalistic note. While on ‘The Greatest’, Lana was “signing off” in advance of the forever seemingly-imminent apocalypse, on ‘Dark But Just a Game’ she sings of “making out in the parking lot” “while the whole world is crazy”. Meanwhile, the album is littered with subtle lyrical references to past songs: the aforementioned lyric recalls ‘When The World Was At War, We Just Kept Dancing’, while Lana sings a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ (from the album ‘Ladies of The Canyon’) on this album after having referenced “all the ladies of the canyon” on 2019’s ‘Bartender’.
The album’s weaker points come when Lana tries not to build on ‘NFR!’, but instead tries to replicate it’s formula, or abandon it entirely. ‘Wild At Heart’ sounds like one of Lana’s best tracks ever until you realise that it has blatantly sampled ‘How To Disappear’ – a song from her last album, whose sampling will be instantly recognisable to most fans. If anything, the use of the sample only reminds listeners that for as stunning as much of this album is, it just isn’t reaching the same heights as it’s predecessor.
Elsewhere, the album falters for the exact opposite reason. ‘Breaking Up Slowly’ – while not a bad song in it’s own right, sticks out like a sore thumb on the track-listing. Featuring Nikki Lane, it is Lana’s most country song on a very-not-country album. While the vocals of Del Rey and Lane work nicely together, Del Rey allows herself to be overshadowed by Lane; who is given the first leg of the song all to herself. Indeed, the last few tracks of the album feel less like part of a cohesive record and more like a random selection of songs placed together. Indeed, the last four songs on the album combined, feature 3 artists (the rest of the album features none), includes a Joni Mitchell cover (which, itself, features Weyes Blood; who sounds deceptively like Mitchell herself), includes a country-tinged track and, a track originally written for 2017’s ‘Lust For Life’ (that ends up sounding like it should’ve been on ‘Honeymoon’).
Ultimately, while ‘Chemtrails’ may not be the most instantly memorable, or artistically significant, addition to Del Rey’s discography, it remains an effective showcase of her considerable talent. More so than any other album, it manages to balance the cinematic, romantic, nostalgic and shocking elements of her earlier work, with the newfound perspective seen on her last album. Del Rey promises she’s “not gonna change” on this album and, while that’s truer for this album than any that’s come before it, Del Rey – in exploring jazz and country and going more personal than ever on this album – showcases many potential new avenues to go forward with; each containing the same boundless potential and promise that Del Rey has displayed her whole career and that has helped her build up an unmatched legion of dedicated fans.
Best Tracks: Tulsa Jesus Freak, Let Me Love You Like A Woman, Wild At Heart, Dark But Just A Game
Worst Track: Breaking Up Slowly