Lana Del Rey was already an established presence come 2019, but that year’s breakthrough Norman Fucking Rockwell! solidified her combination of wistful Americana and seedy LA glamour stories. It was voted our second favourite album of the year, and garnered Song of the Year and Album of the Year nominations from the Grammys. All of a sudden Lana Del Rey had an unlikely seat at the table among pop stalwarts like Beyonce, Taylor Swift or even Ariana Grande (with whom she shared an ill-advised single).
That placement always sat a bit strangely. Moreso than her contemporaries, Del Rey is a singer-songwriter at heart, and Chemtrails Over the Country Club sees her distancing herself from lavish production and drawing even more from the American songbook for inspiration. Last year she got herself in some hot water when she responded to a perceived criticism of her music as backward-looking and white-washed.
Although there are less stories of sleaze and submissive capitulation to the male gaze, if anything Del Rey has produced an even more traditional and quintessentially “American” record than its predecessor. Replace the sun-kissed California vistas with the wide open plains of the American heartland and you have a good picture of this record. It’s reflected sonically too, with a turn towards country songwriting and stripped-back instrumentation.
The bad news can come first: it’s sometimes dull. This is a country record at heart and there are some mis-steps. The closing track For Free is a Joni Mitchell cover and it adds little to the original, despite a killer turn by guest vocalist Weyes Blood. Breaking Up Slowly sees Del Rey teaming up with country musician Nikki Lane and trading vocals. They both sound great but they also wear out the same simple verse for three minutes straight.
Let Me Love You Like a Woman is a song that inspires mixed thoughts. It’s sonically beautiful, but the lyrics and melody are far too Lana-by-the-numbers to make this a standout in her discography. The album also takes few musical risks or boasts many new melodies. There’s barely any electric guitars, let alone synths, on here. Listeners that lack patience for country be warned, as there is a lot of it here.
That being said, Del Rey’s excellent lyricism and voice carry the remaining material and demonstrate why she’s America’s premier singer-songwriter. Particularly interesting is opener White Dress, which sees Del Rey indirectly addressing fame by calling for simpler times. Her raspy whispered delivery echoes her wonderment and vulnerability in simpler times, as she reminisces about her teenage years and wonders if it was worth it to seek fame at all.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club is a masterpiece in painting a mood with pictures as Del Rey recalls her youth, with images of white picket fences and being “in our jewels in the swimming pool,” a great way of framing young exuberance. The best line is the title itself, perfectly summarising this song’s unaired menace. There sits the country club, home to both the old money and the type of grassroots conspiracy theorists who made Trump happen.
Tulsa Jesus Freak has a beautiful little melody that makes great use (for once) of Auto-Tune in its closing moments. Again the lyrics are the star of the show, as the song seems to address a dysfunctional relationship (“Keep that bottle at your hand, my man/ Find your way back to my bed again”).
Elsewhere, Del Rey considers life on the road. On the country kiss-off Dance Til We Die she reflects on her heroes in Mitchell, Baez and Nicks. The song kicks along nicely enough until the outstanding bridge, where Del Rey shows an energetic country-rock side that you would gladly hear a hundred times more.
Meanwhile, Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost is a haunting ode to wanderlust. The album highlight however is the dark and unforgettable Dark But Just a Game. It’s referencing the nature of Hollywood, “dark but just a game,” but the final’s chorus’ omission of “game” questions if it is one after all. Throughout, Del Rey struggles to hold onto her humanity (“No rose left on the vines/ Don’t even want what’s mine/ Much less the fame/ It’s dark, but just a game”).
By any other musical standard this would be a close to perfect country album, but by Lana Del Rey’s own it doesn’t quite have the cinematic and emotional sweep of Norman Fucking Rockwell! Nevertheless, this is an excellent follow-up, showing a new side to Del Rey and flashing some of her best lyricism yet.