Lana Del Rey hasn’t exactly receded from public view in the decade since she broke onto the scene with ‘Video Games’ – she can still gain wall-to-wall tabloid coverage and social media virality with just a single statement or tweet. However it’s fair to say – musically, at least – that much of her later career has existed in the shadow of ‘Born To Die’; which remains only the second ever album by a woman to spend over 400 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart. Even her acclaimed magnum opus ‘Norman F*cking Rockwell’ – an instant classic that solidified her as a truly once-in-a-generation talent – was charting below the then 7-year-old ‘Born To Die’ within 3 months of it’s release.
Post-‘Rockwell’, this is a situation Lana seems happier than ever to be in; ‘Blue Banisters’ first three singles were released all at once with little pomp and circumstance; each accompanied by a cover designed by Lana herself, seemingly on the popular photo-editing app PicsArt. More so than ever, Lana’s latest album feels very much like one for-the-fans. Appropriately, this collection of new material and reworked previously unreleased material (dating back as far as 2013) showcases the very essence of Del Rey; her music scaled down to it’s core foundations; her usual cinematic ambitions replaced by a quiet self-assurance.
For her eighth studio album, Del Rey has done away with previous collaborator Jack Antonoff; who helped create her 2019 magnum opus, but who – some complained – had made her work (particularly ‘Chemtrails’) overly polished and straight laced. Now everyone from Grammys-mainstay Rick Nowels (Dua Lipa, Adele, FKA Twigs) to long time Kanye West producer Mike Dean (West, Drake, The Weeknd) have taken the reigns over production. Occasionally, this leads to a sound sure to win back old-Lana fans (the trip-hop-meets-mariachi interlude ‘The Trio’, the sampling of 2012’s ‘American’ on ‘If You Lie Down With Me’). But for the most part, these songs lean heavily on the understated, timeless arrangements of ‘Chemtrails’. Though, there is a transcendence and tenderness to the best songs here (‘If You Lie Down With Me’, ‘Arcadia’) that has been missing from her work for some time.
Like she did on ‘Chemtrails’, Del Rey explores country and Americana music; this time, however, it’s not confined to one song, instead, the influence is infused more subtly across the track list. This move should be less shocking than it is, considering how Del Rey’s writing has always shared significant overlap with country music (reverence for a by-gone era, religious referentialism, Tammy Wynette levels of loyalty to men). Del Rey hasn’t fully found her footing in this arena, but her exploration of it, nonetheless, offers an exciting glimpse at a possible new direction for a star who has proven herself a master of reinvention.
Perhaps what’s most noteworthy about ‘Blue Banisters’, however, is it’s staggering honesty. Del Rey has long fought back against critics who doubted her sincerity and deemed her persona a ‘character’. But, there’s no denying that early-Lana’s evocation of femme-fatales and almost comically awful men made it hard to decipher the fact from the fiction. Historically, Del Rey’s music is usually focused on the present moment; whether she’s reflecting in real time on the state of the world in ‘The Greatest’, or capturing the final moments, as they happen, of two lovers doomed Bonnie and Clyde style on ‘Born To Die’.
Here, however she excavates her formative years; “Here’s the deal” she tells us on ‘Wildflower Wildfire’, before giving way to a crushing quartet of lines:
“My father never stepped in when his wife would rage at me
So I ended up awkward but sweet
Later then hospitals, stand still on my feet
Comfortably numb, but with lithium came poetry”
When Del Rey teased a new album just one day after ‘Chemtrail’s release she said it would “challenge” those who had criticised her in the wake of a series of social media controversies. “I want revenge” she declared on her Instagram story. Her rhetoric led some to theorise that ‘Blue Banisters’ – then tentatively titled ‘Rock Candy Sweet’, and with a slightly different track-list – would be her version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’; a cocky rebuttal to critics where she transforms into an antihero. Instead, what we’ve gotten is something far more rewarding; with Del Rey rebutting the critics simply by ignoring them; focusing, instead, on telling listeners the ‘real’ story; one that proves to be far more compelling than that the critics have tried to tar her with over the years.
Lana’s music, however, would lose one of it’s most interesting tenants if it were to lose it’s sense of mystery, and Lana fights to keep this alive here. She’s still “wild”, fucking crazy” and a “bad girl” she assures us. On Miles Kane assist ‘Dealer’ – first teased in 2020 as her first song where “I’m just screaming my head off” – we’re warned allusively not to “find me through my dealer”, before Del Rey shouts, exasperated, “I don’t wanna live / I don’t wanna give you nothing”. It proves her capable of walking the very thin tight rope between enigma and open-book; and her ability to do so speaks to the feverish response she evokes from so many.
While ‘Blue Banisters’ maybe more subdued than most of her catalogue, it’s quietly impressive; pulling off multiple balancing acts simultaneously and featuring some of the sharpest, most introspective song-writing of her career. With an unrivalled cult following and an undisputed classic under her belt, Lana sounds less restless than usual. Ironically, it is with nothing left to prove that she proves the most.
Best Tracks: ‘Text Book’, ‘If You Lie Down With Me’, ‘Dealer’, ‘Thunder’
Worst Track: ‘Wildflower Wildfire’