Review Summary: It was such a scene / and I felt seen
When will people stop giving Lana del Rey such unfair treatment? Is it a tragedy that more people don’t take her radically candid songwriting style more seriously? Uh, you bet it is, and don’t you dare insinuate that there are more important things to bewail. Of everyone who has ever put self-awareness to one side and stood Christ-like in the spotlight of public scrutiny, has any rich, successful, attractive, popular, critically acclaimed artist been less rewarded for doing so? Maybe she brings a little of it upon herself, but as far as big names go, Lana is clearly the victim of discriminatory double standards: if Beyoncé called out half the non-white RnB canon for singing too loosely about sex, you can bet people would take her seriously! People have been calling Lana biased against black artists ever since she challenged Azealia Banks to a fistfight, but the facts dictate that no-one cares more about not soliciting a racially informed perspective on just about anything than Lana del Rey. Not that any of this is important; it's still great music. God, if only people paid attention to the music…
Lana del Rey's new album contains forty-five minutes of music, and, heavens be praised, none of the double standards, real or imagined, held against her have any reason to enter into its reception. Chemtrails Over The Country Club
is a face-value bad album so rife with clumsy writing, bland instrumentation, vacuous sentimentalism and hamfisted stylisation that no wider knowledge of its creator or her portfolio is remotely necessary to write it off wholesale. If Norman Fucking Rockwell!
was the record her non-partisan sympathisers dreamed she might make, this is the one they feared. It’s hushed but impersonal, pared-back without having anything to reveal, and verbose without saying anything of substance. You should hear it immediately by means that won’t encourage its reception on popular platforms, and then avoid it for the rest of your days.
Things start out on the wrong foot: opener “White Dress” sees del Rey reinvent her stately drawl into a wheezy correlate to the delivery that handed Billie Eilish her 2019 Grammy. Whether or not this counts as a belated shrug at yesterday’s battles or a step into brave new territory is beyond me, but it’s insufferably laboured either way. It’s seen off with a stinker of a chorus, crammed with an indecent amount of syllables and dead-on-arrival melodies memorable in the same way as, say, footage of a gull in an oilslick. It’s like a major failure of aesthetic judgement, in which sense it’s a little unrepresentative of the rest of the album; for the most part, Chemtrails
is more full of interminable non-starters than of outright shockers. “Let Me Love You Like A Woman” and “Wild At Heart” are particular offenders here, dragging their heels through a dearth of good hooks and a flush of Americana cliches, and their tepid instrumentation and delivery are reflected across the board. To this end, producer/writer/stagnater-in-chief of today’s white girl pop landscape Jack Antonoff is less a distant architect and more a hands-on enabler, streamlining arrangements so minimal that each one feels like a direct extension of his own self-satisfied hands over lucrative ivories. Similarly to last year’s spoken word siesta hour Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass
, these arrangements are almost entirely dedicated to spotlighting and subtly accenting del Rey’s vocal performance and, fatally, her lyricism.
In this department, Chemtrails
is a distinct step down from Norman Fucking Rockwell!
, which for all its postulation and privilege at least held a zeitgeist edge of sorts. Lana sings, as usual, about living with a secret wildness, sacrificed to a neverending sequence of underwhelming highs and suburban tropes, and underscored by a contrarian ambivalence towards LA that will be immediately familiar to those lucky few who made it through Violet...
. Her writing is poetic in the dreariest sense imaginable, putatively empowered by the circumstance of its meter, but ultimately little more than a flimsy get-out-of-jail card for couplets as inexcusable as I only mention it 'cause it was such a scene / and I felt seen
and the cameras have flashes / they cause the car crashes
. There are vocalists who could have carried these lines with a wry wink, but del Rey’s quintessentially American immunity to irony lets her down here.
largely avoids NFR
's engagement with contemporary specifics; where that album dredged up Donald Trump and Kanye West, this one submerges itself in Americana whimsy and autobiographical references kitschified to the level of B-movie posters - "White Dress"). True to recent form, it's like del Rey is reaching out for society's wrist with a hand left too long in the champagne bucket to make out the faintest trace of a pulse. Her pen is supposedly directed towards the warmth and solidarity of her relationships with other women, but this is rarely evident outside of the zany title-track; her central truth is still, somehow, located in the middle distance between her past and future dreams of self-destructive love affairs and aimless avenues of escape. Isn't it cool how nothing here changes at all
While its lows are catastrophically dull, Chemtrails
has a handful of salvageable cuts. It peaks early and demurely, with the one-two combination of the title-track and the long-teased “Tulsa Jesus Freak”. The former is a partial vindication of the album’s minimalist palette, a near-fairytale daydream atmosphere responsive to the slightest lilt of her inflections. It’s one of the rare moments where her concerted fidelity to consistent verse meter feels graceful and organic; it’s a suburban mapping as derivative and decadent as any she’s penned, but this is less a retread and more a graceful reminder of why she attracted such intrigue for those qualities to begin with. On the other hand, “Tulsa Jesus Freak” is the only part of the album that revives the vintage tension of del Rey’s early days, though it’s more a hushed mattress ode than the trailblazing glamour of, say, “Off To the Races.” “Dark But Just A Game” is also worth an honourable mention for breaking the album’s mould with a chorus with chords that actively respond to its verse progression rather than bleeding out of its languor. None of these are sufficient to give Chemtrails
the feel of a highlight album, but they’re serviceable as far as silver linings go.
By and large, Chemtrails Over The Country Club
confirms every longstanding inadequacy to Lana del Rey’s craft with a pernicious listlessness that bloats its relatively economical runtime and extends a mind-erasing tedium far beyond those temporal confines. It neither conflicts with nor needs to intersect with del Rey’s celebrity profile, but for anyone mindful of the vast amounts of patience demanded of anyone who really gets
Lana del Rey in a holistic sense, it will likely come off as anything from disappointing to outright insulting. This is supported by the record’s final statement, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”; while the cover itself is a limp restaging carried largely by the vocal talents of Weyes Blood and Zella Day, the clarity of Mitchell’s writing cuts through the vagueness and hazy indulgence of del Rey’s craft on the preceding ten tracks. There’s a prophetic aptness to this: in an in-depth commentary on Norman Fuckng Rockwell!
that del Rey famously trashed on social media, arch-critic Ann Powers assessed del Rey’s songwriting as unfocused and undercooked in comparison with Mitchell’s, one of many critical observations of del Rey doomed to repeat themselves here . Back in 2012, the Lana del Rey of Born To Die
spoke truth to toxic, masculine power with a fascinatingly contradictory vision of self-empowerment. This intrigue and cognitive dissonance has since boiled down to a distant hangover; the Lana del Rey of Chemtrails
is full of shit and lost in a blurry mess of yesterday’s cliches, yet she somehow seems more herself than she’s ever been.