After releasing her prescient, apocalyptic masterpiece Norman Fucking Rockwell! Lana Del Rey received a torrent of critical acclaim for the album and critical attacks for her social media posts. Such is the circle game of the internet. Lana preempted the potential reaction to her follow up album by announcing that she felt sorry for it in advance, knowing it could never match up to its older sibling. In the end she shouldn’t have worried. Chemtrails Over the Country Club is cool, confident and content in its own skin.
In the stunning opening song she’s nostalgic for a time when she was just ‘a waitress in a white dress’, listening to Kings of Leon and the White Stripes, enjoying the rush that comes from being young and free. The line about ‘men in the music business conference’ is a wry and true reflection of the reality of a misogynist industry. The conclusion she reaches is that she was ‘better off’ before.
Lana’s escape from fame is lounging with her lover and her rich friends in the country club. She ignores the conspiracy theories floating above, isolated from the insane noise of the outside world. On Tulsa Jesus Freak she’s fallen in love, found someone who can settle her nerves. When sings Let Me Love You Like A Woman you hear her dreaming for the soft bloom of romance.
Wild At Heart is her most stunning vocal, an angelic LA story. There’s a tension between the allure of the city, the life of a pop star and the need for freedom, for a different kind of life.
Fame is intoxicating and yet debilitating, destructive, deadly. Dark But Just A Game explores these contradictions. The tragic fate of those who came before her seems impossible to escape. She concludes the ‘best ones lost their minds’ so she ‘won’t change.’
On Yosemite there is a reference to Candle in the Wind, a song much maligned but one that tried to understand the tragedy of women in the spotlight. Lana’s new love has helped her stop ‘burning the candle at both ends’. But love alone might not be enough.
Interesting then with all the songs about her new relationship that she includes ‘Breaking Up Slowly’ written with the original Highway Queen herself Nikki Lane. The song references Tammy Wynette and George Jones and explores how difficult it is to end a relationship. Maybe for Lana this song isn’t just about breaking up with a lover, more about breaking up with pop stardom itself.
What that collaboration and the last two songs on the album offer is an alternative story of how to survive fame – by surrounding yourself with women who support you and understand what you’re going through. On Dance Til We Die she sings it’s good to know I’m not alone, telling us how she has connected with her musical heroes: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Courtney Love, Stevie Nicks. These are the women who walked unafraid through a man’s world and survived. The final song is a cover of Joni’s For Free with Weyes Blood and Zella Day, singing about the joy of just living for music without the rest of the bullshit that comes with the career.
And no wonder she feels connected to that song when you think about the life of a modern pop star. From the outside they seem to all be trapped in some kind of hyper curated online hellscape where their image is digitally and surgically moulded to perfection, every tweet is approved by a focus group, every Instagram post professionally shot, every album a new ‘era’ where they must reinvent themselves ad infinitum. They must also be role models, with progressive political and cultural opinions expressed at the appropriate time, who must try to save the world while also atoning for their very existence.
Those who don’t match these impossible standards are attacked from all sides. It’s never easy going your own way, especially since every news outlet seems to have an opinion on your authenticity, direction, personality, even your relationships. Lana comes across as defensive sometimes but no wonder when your life and art is served up as click bait or pretentious cultural commentary. What journalists and people on social media seem to forget is that these are real people, with real emotions, real bills to pay and this is just music.
And let’s be clear Lana’s music is stunning – way better lyrically and vocally than any of her contemporaries in pop. These last two albums are a real shift to a higher plane. She’s thriving despite it all.
Tammy Wynette’s biographer Jimmy McDonough once wrote that the truly great artists learn how to do one thing well, like how Tammy delivered a sad song better than anyone. Lana is going to play out her glamodrama, romantic musical vision to the very end. On this evidence it won’t be a tragedy after all.