On ‘Chemtrails Over the Country Club,’ Lana Del Rey Reckons With the Career and Life She Cultivated

If you’re not already a fan of Lana Del Rey, her latest album “Chemtrails over the Country Club” probably won’t change your mind. The performative, narcissistic melancholy of her music has metastasized in the era of Covid, highlighting the unhappiness of the affluent with the precision of a plastic surgeon’s scalpel, and the poetry of a social media era Stevie Nicks. All of which to say that her latest album is ethereal and beautiful but unlikely to change perceptions about an artist who still hasn’t reconciled her need for attention and her aptitude for making public statements that land her in trouble.

“Chemtrails” reunites Del Rey with “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” producer Jack Antonoff, who also helped shepherd Taylor Swift through her “Folklore” and “Evermore” album cycles last year. Their work together only burnishes the sensation of her songwriting as a privileged enclave merging reality and novelistic detail that anyone outside of it would envy, but those inside realize is as rife with problems — from petty to existential — as any other corner of contemporary life. The opener, “White Dress,” wistfully recalls Del Rey’s early days when she was working as a waitress, struggling to make ends meet; she captures the youthful mindset with an almost aspirational specificity, capturing the sensation of doing what you have to do in life before you get to do what you want. That she includes the lyric “I wasn’t famous” unfortunately exposes a recurrent cornerstone of her musical identity — looking at the way the world looks at her after she seeks its gaze — undermining what could otherwise be a relatable story about looking from the outside at a world its narrator wants to be part of. 

Then again, maybe that narrator is the person who listens to her music, absorbing reams of social media posts from celebrities chronicling their luxurious lifestyles, imagining themselves as temporarily displaced A-listers still toiling in the blue-collar trenches. And so, Del Rey’s music fulfills both the escapism of that fantasy and the acknowledgment that those perfectly-choreographed images conceal disappointment, sadness and unfulfillment. Musically speaking, her breathy whisper is much less impactful than her smoulder, so if that opener fails to impress, she shifts into a more compelling mode on the title track, juxtaposing the ambient menace of conspiracy theories and imagery of rich suburban life (“Drag racing my little red sports car / I’m not unhinged or unhappy, I’m just wild”). She continues capturing this sensation of youth and youthfulness on “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” speaking to a lover she reassures they will both be “We’ll be white hot forever / And ever and ever, amen.”

“Let Me Love You Like A Woman,” the first single, perfectly captures the different sensations, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory, that make her music so interesting. It’s essentially a love song but it’s also about the desire for her to escape from the LA lifestyle she’s codified in her music, while also chronicling the wealth that both let her live that way and potentially might let her easily escape it. “Wild at Heart” evokes a lot of those Nicks comparisons not just vocally but in terms of the songwriting, but arrives at a place that’s firmly Del Rey’s where she tells a partner, and then one supposes, her fans the reason they should love her: “If you love me, you’ll love me / ‘Cause I’m wild, wild at heart.” It’s a sentiment that speaks exactly to the identity she’s curated for herself, suggesting she contains multitudes, but making sure you either like them all or ignore the ones you don’t. What quickly becomes interesting about the record is how it spotlights the ways in which Del Rey is first and foremost undeniably talented, and at the same time, her own worst enemy; she’s like a rapper who can’t stop talking about themselves, but delivers one bar of gold after another. In an alternate reality, “Dark But Just A Game” could be a galvanizing Fiona Apple song about fame and its trappings, but it lacks Apple’s unvarnished candor, and quite frankly, her righteous fury; Del Rey creates a series of mesmerizing melodies, but even as she’s lamenting the dwindling attention she’ll get if her beauty fades or fame dissipates, the deeper message is getting lost because of the portrait it accompanies.

Del Rey revealed in 2017 that “Yosemite” was simply too cheerful for her to include on “Lust For Life,” which is a fascinating characterization for a song where she wrestles so ambivalently about the inevitable changes that happen in people, and eventually, impact the trajectory of a relationship. Notwithstanding it featuring the second reference on the album of a “candle in the wind,” an image one suspects she frequently identifies with, the song feels like a dusty country ballad, rife with the sound of Americana and the bittersweet recognition of both the specificity of her experience and the universality of the overall sentiment. She continues on that musical path with “Breaking Up Slowly,” a song co-written by Nikki Lane that quite honestly feels too direct and literal to have started with Del Rey, but which taps into some powerful feelings about the mistakes that signal the end of a relationship (“George got arrеsted out on the lawn / We might be breakin’ up after this song”), and the little gestures to one another that you know must stop even if you’ll miss them (“So don’t send me flowers like you always do / It’s hard to be lonely, but it’s the right thing”).

She concludes the album with “Dance Till We Die,” a tribute to the female songwriters and artists who inspired her — somewhat predictably, via their intersection with her career: “I’m coverin’ Joni and I’m dancin’ with Joan / Stevie is callin’ on the telephone / Court almost burned down my home / But God, it feels good not to be alone.” She follows that with the Mitchell cover “For Free,” performed with Weyes Blood and Zella Day; it’s an interesting choice for an artist whose perspective is so focused on herself to wrap with a performance of another artist’s music, but it also connects her work to a legacy that existed for decades, combating the roles and responsibilities, opportunities and limitations of artistic expression, success and fame. Unfortunately for Del Rey, Mitchell’s self-examination (“Now me, I play for fortunes / And those velvet curtain calls… But the one-man band by thе quick lunch stand / He’s been playin’ real good for free”) is much more precise and incisive than hers. 

“Chemtrails over the Country Club” is, for better or worse, vintage Lana Del Rey, and it’s absolutely consistent with everything she’s produced before. But sooner or later she should probably figure out if she wants to get out from under fame’s spotlight, or stop doing things that attract it — or at the very least, come a little more harmoniously to terms with the idea that cultivating the life, career and lifestyle that she wants also means paying for it.

Chemtrails over the Country Club” releases March 19 on Apple Music.