On her strikingly assured seventh album, Del Rey reflects on fame, love, loneliness and the solidarity of fellow female songwriters, from Joni Mitchell to Weyes Blood
Lana Del Rey’s latest album begins with the borderline infamous singer-songwriter reminiscing about a time before fame. Sung in a fluttering soprano at the very limit of her range, White Dress pictures the 19-year-old Del Rey in a tight uniform, working as a waitress in the mid-00s and dreaming of what is to come. “Down at the Men in Music Business Conference,” she confides in a breathless rush, the budding artist finally feels “seen”.
At the album’s other end sits a cover of Joni Mitchell’s For Free, in which the grande dame of song pondered, in 1970, how a busker can play “real good, for free” to so little acclaim, while Mitchell herself is raking it in as a celebrity. Del Rey’s album has more than one arc, but one is a numbers game. On White Dress she is alone; by the end, she is joined by Weyes Blood and singer-songwriter Zella Day, each singing a Joni verse and joining in on period-perfect harmonies, weighing up the contradictions.
Throughout this excellent seventh outing, Del Rey frequently chews over the vexed business of success, her loneliness and her comradeship. She accosts you in various bars, not only telling you her star sign – Cancer – but her moon: Leo. In the middle is perhaps this great album’s greatest segment. A minor-key folk song that doesn’t bother trying to be anything but, Yosemite dates back to sessions for Del Rey’s 2017 album, Lust for Life, but embodies this album’s concern with craft. “We did it for fun, we did it for free,” she sings of her work, in one of Del Rey’s best vocals to date. On Wild at Heart, she claims not to be a star, nodding obliquely to the death of Princess Diana – “the cameras had flashes, they caused the car crashes” – an impression only reinforced by repeated references to Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.
The dead-eyed jadedness of her earlier protagonists has been replaced by something less coy and more direct
Fame is just one concern: Del Rey weighs up the relative merits of change and constancy, of love and loneliness, all with intensely discreet instrumentation provided by returnee producer Jack Antonoff, who worked on Del Rey’s last album, the equally extraordinary Norman Fucking Rockwell!. All these nods are seeded carefully through a suite of songs that also reference one another.
The album’s title – Chemtrails Over the Country Club – could have been used on many of Del Rey’s previous records, pointing up as it does the contrast between the Americana of white picket fences and the nation’s uneasy dark side, a continued fascination of Lana Del Rey’s work. (“Chemtrails” refers to a conspiracy theory that the condensation from aeroplanes is secretly laced with nefarious chemicals.)
But this is a record chockful of beauty and thoughtful autobiography that only a more experienced, more assured songwriter could have made. Although one of its central songs, Dark But Just a Game, dwells on the seamier side of Los Angeles celebrity, the dead-eyed jadedness of Del Rey’s earlier protagonists seems to be behind her, replaced by something less coy and more direct. These are tunes full of pugnacious vulnerability and unapologetic prettiness, littered with Laurel Canyon throwbacks and elegiac, multitracked vocals. Del Rey has come close to conventionality – but on her own terms. She’ll still be getting “high on pink champagne” (a form of MDMA), a barfly equally at home in Calabasas – a celebrity enclave in the LA hills – or tempting a “Tulsa Jesus freak” back into bed.
Love songs continue to predominate in the work of this inveterate romantic, but throughout Chemtrails, Del Rey alights repeatedly on the mentorship and solidarity of fellow female songwriters. As well as Weyes Blood and Day, singer-songwriter Nikki Lane duets with Del Rey on a plangent country tune, Breaking Up Slowly (apparently, there are more country songs waiting in the wings). That track evokes the long-suffering country singer Tammy Wynette and concludes that, where once Del Rey’s protagonist might have clung, breaking up is “the right thing to do”. Moreover, Del Rey is also “covering Joni and dancing with Joan [Baez]” while Stevie [Nicks] is “calling on the telephone”. The album’s cover art finds Del Rey surrounded by her sister and a bevy of female friends, all glamorous and, pointedly, of many skin tones. (Del Rey has come under fire for some ill-judged comments online about the output of women of colour, which she maintains were misunderstood.)
No longer is Del Rey selling a kind of compromised ultra-femininity; she is doing “the Louisiana two-step, high and bright” with her squad. In the video for the title track, her pack all turn into sexy werewolves by night, referencing, perhaps, Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run With the Wolves and the recent Disney+ Marvel offering WandaVision as much as The Wizard of Oz. Del Rey is at pains to clear up something very important: “I’m not unhinged or unhappy,” she sings, “I’m still so strange and wild.”