There once was a Glamorous Person, by the name of Lana Del Rey, who only wanted to sing about dark subjects in her glamorous way, without being accused of glamorizing that darkness and thereby betraying feminism and womankind. After all, might not the luster of her appearance and the lushness of her sounds illuminate those shadow traps all the better, in conveying how desire and danger can intertwine? Setting up camp—and “camp” is the word—in the Glamorous Person capital of Los Angeles, she carried the torch (song) for a rich, local cultural tradition of tracing the city’s gleam back to its rough noir sources. Like Raymond Chandler or Warren Zevon before her, the Glamorous Person intimated that beneath the beach sands lie the buried corpses and the contaminated pipes.
However, this Glamorous Person also carried a diamond-studded chip on her shoulder. And for good reason: When she first emerged into the limelight, she was dismissed as a fool’s-gold, phony Glamorous Person who had not earned her glamour. This reaction was a sexist-tinged misreading of the entire idea of glamour, which any good sorcerer knows is a trick by definition. Granted, her sleights of hand may initially not have been undetectably smooth at every turn, but she honed them rapidly, enchanting more and more followers. With her 2019 collection of spells, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, even the most resistant subjects seemed to fall under her sway. The academy of professional magicians nominated her to its highest honors.
In that very moment of vindication, though, the Glamorous Person seemed to become mesmerized by her glittering grudges of old. First, in September 2019, she laid a curse upon a critic who made the mistake of paying her the wrong compliments, and loosed her social-media minions upon the offender like a pack of baying hounds. In the process, the Glamorous Person denied ever having had a “persona,” which seemed not only absurd given that she’d dubbed herself with the transparently concocted Glamorous Sobriquet “Lana Del Rey,” but also a betrayal of the fundamental larger-than-life-ness of glamour, which discloses its truths through the efficacy of its illusions. (She seemed to be mixing up the idea of persona with a claim of dishonesty.)
Then, last May, in defending her right to sing about sexuality and violence, she claimed critics mistreated her compared to a list of other artists, most of them women of color, as if to imply there was some kind of reverse double-standard. (This was also the message in which she dubbed herself a Glamorous Person.) Many regrettable sequels followed, in interviews and online statements, culminating in her pre-emptive Instagram defense in January of the cover of her new album, Chemtrails over the Country Club, which features the Glamorous Person in the company of many of her nearest and dearest Glamorous Friends. Seeming to fear the group would be judged tokenistic or insufficiently diverse, she resorted to a tired “some-of-my-best-friends”-style declaration, capping it by claiming that with her arts, she was “literally changing the world … 24 seven,” at which it’s hard not to giggle. And that’s a notorious spell breaker.
Following up an album as acclaimed as Norman Fucking Rockwell! is never easy to begin with, but the series of unfortunate events that I’ve just recounted really wound up the spring of potential backlash for Del Rey’s new music. Perhaps partially to let that tension dissipate (or because of pandemic-fueled backups at vinyl-pressing plants), Chemtrails Over the Country Club was delayed from September until this month. (In the meanwhile, she released a book of poetry with musical accompaniment, called Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, which I’d politely call pretty decent, as far as rock-star poetry goes. I quite like the title piece.)
Though there are times it’s unavoidable, I generally try not to take stars’ public statements too seriously. Glamorous People are not always their own best diplomatic envoys, and some, such as their patron saint Andy Warhol, have raised studied vapidity to a kind of art form in itself. However, the critic that Del Rey attacked in 2019 was Ann Powers of NPR, a good friend of mine, and I did worry that this might affect how I heard her new music. On first listen, I found Chemtrails a disappointment relative to NFR, and there was a fugitive satisfaction in the feeling. With repeated plays, though, I came to hear it as pursuing an off-road from the expansive national-imagination portraits Del Rey and her producing partner Jack Antonoff created on that last album, even if Chemtrails remains more uneven. It’s more private and understated. In places, it pokes around behind the glamour and discloses its shortfalls, without abandoning the Glamorous Person project altogether. What it still leaves under-interrogated is glamour’s implicit whiteness, as in the femme-fatale imagery Del Rey draws upon, in contrast with the jazz, blues, and R&B roots of her musical settings. That’s standard fare in American pop, but it’s more conspicuous in Del Rey’s work, because history and nostalgia ride so close to the surface here, even without the recent controversies.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club is framed by its opening and closing tracks, both songs about what someone might lose in becoming glamorous; that is to say, in self-commoditization. The first, “White Dress,” harkens back to a 19-year-old working as a waitress on the night shift, hanging out, drinking in the new rock of the mid-2000s (the White Stripes and Kings of Leon get shoutouts—as does, for less legible reasons, Sun Ra), and getting her first taste of being “seen” as an artist at what she amusingly calls “the Men in Music Business Conference.” How directly autobiographical that is, I don’t know, but the poignancy kicks in at the end when she sings, “It made me feel/ Made me feel like a god/ Kinda makes me feel/ Like maybe I was better off.” The anecdote may sound thin described on the page, but the ache is in how Del Rey sings most of the song at the almost squeaking tiptop of her falsetto, as if performing as her younger self. At first, it’s over a bare piano, then Antonoff brings in bass and drums that swirl like gathering clouds, until she reaches her sighing conclusion.
The closing song is a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free,” from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, arguably the album where Mitchell began to find her mature voice. The selection is perhaps a little barbed, given that the Powers review that upset Del Rey contrasted her lyrics somewhat unfavorably with Mitchell’s. But it also reinforces the sentiment of “White Dress,” as it’s the song in which Mitchell pays tribute to a clarinetist busker who “played real good for free,” while she realizes that, “Now me, I play for fortunes/ And those velvet curtain calls/ I’ve got a black limousine/ And two gentlemen/ Escorting me to the halls.” It’s Mitchell observing her loss of idealism and autonomy in exchange for glamour.
Many artists cover Mitchell (Mitchell’s web page lists 66 other versions of “For Free” alone) and most founder on the rocks of her genius, but Del Rey blunts the possible hubris by sharing the song with two other strong singers, Zella Day and Weyes Blood. Yet they each end up doing a “Joni accent” (and Antonoff’s arrangement is reverently Mitchell-esque too), a boundary that LDR’s verse manages mostly to slip. Along with the thematic resonance, the song serves as an index to the ambitions of Chemtrails as an album, shifting a few degrees away from the lyrical and musical pastiche approach of NFR toward Mitchell’s famously more “confessional” singer-songwriter mode.
“For Free” is presaged by the penultimate track, “Dance Till We Die,” which stakes Del Rey’s own claim to the Laurel Canyon ladies’ lineage. There’s a triplet of namedrops in the opening verse: “I’m covering Joni and dancing with Joan/ Stevie’s calling on the telephone”—LDR has dueted with Stevie Nicks in the past, and this song centers on a story she’s told in interviews about going out in San Francisco with a then-septuagenarian Joan Baez “to this Afro-Caribbean two-step place and [dancing] all night. She fucking outlasted me.” For a dance-themed song, it’s a little drowsy, but comes alive all of a sudden when it hits a bridge aptly set in a Bay Area, 1960s blues-band style, though that’s sadly brief.
Del Rey wrestles with the contradictions of fame in a few other of these songs, such as “Wild at Heart,” which asks an unnamed interlocutor, “What would you do if I wouldn’t sing for them no more?” (It’s one of a few songs here that would be better if it didn’t lapse back partially into the pastiche gear—the much-reiterated, David Lynch-referencing title line is dull by comparison to the rest of the lyrics.) And “Dark But Just a Game” reflects on a Hollywood party full of people whose stories might well “all end tragically,” with a nod to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in the line, “The best ones lost their minds.” It’s set to one of Del Rey and Antonoff’s best musical structures here, with an “A” section in a typically LDR slinky-noir style, but a “B” part that breaks out into a bright Beatles- or Elliott Smith-like texture building to her all-cancelling exclamation, “Don’t even want what’s mine/ Much less the fame!”
But the Joni homage also primed my ear to listen for the Blue emotional notes on the rest of the album, in songs like “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” “Yosemite,” and “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” which put geographical wanderlust in tension with a grownup yearning for erotic companionship and loyalty. Del Rey’s fascination by conventional gender roles persists, most wearyingly to me on “Let Me Love You Like a Woman,” which is like a 1970s Neil Diamond single melting into sticky tar—but she’s in conversation with a better batch of men here than before. That doesn’t devalue the realism and relevance of her many past bad-boy songs, which she’s always understood better than her critics did, but to keep growing she needs new scenarios and complications.
That said, maybe my favorite song on the record is one about those old archetypes, but in a new and hilarious register. It’s a crawling country waltz called “Breaking Up Slowly,” which lightly references the old Neil Sedaka chestnut “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” but as a duet with roots country singer Nikki Lane, it’s recast as a commiserating-gals anthem. It’s not subtle about its influences: “I don’t wanna live with a life of regret,” Lane sings on the opening verse. “I don’t wanna end up like Tammy Wynette.” Then LDR’s verse offers the rejoinder: “George got arrested out on the lawn/ We might be breaking up after this song.”
Del Rey’s comedic flair is much of what her detractors have underestimated about her. (Her apparent humorlessness in online sniping does not help.) It’s the biggest thing she’s drawn from her hip-hop influences, but no doubt also part of her attraction to Hollywood dames; Marilyn Monroe, despite her tragic end, was first and foremost a comedienne, an old-fashioned term that Del Rey at her best, gender-as-drag-role double-act deserves. The Glamorous Person is also the giddy and irreverent person, if they understand what the quick-change power of glamour is all about. But of course, being a bombshell can also set off bombshells in one’s life. Lana Del Rey has juggled these explosive signifiers throughout her career. The restraint of this album, compared to the last, can be sometimes mesmerizing and sometimes soporific—the title track is much better in its video form, which features glamazons transmogrifying into were-beasts and vampires, than it is on the album.
But overall, Chemtrails opens a channel for the actor behind the antics to hint at what all her shifting faces mean, without dispelling the glamour altogether, which only a thick puritan literalist would demand. The only downside is that Del Rey herself sometimes takes on the character of that thick literalist, when she starts typing in her off time. Speaking of which, unless you’re an anti-scientific conspiracy theorist, the term is actually contrails.