Review Summary: An audience with LDR
Despite LDR's protests that she's never used or needed personas, I've always felt that the poor rich girls and femme fatales ever present in her work felt like characters trapped in a cyclical play. These hyperbolic extensions of her personality have often been at odds with the shyness in interviews and the nerves on early-stage performances. On her second release of 2021, we get perhaps the most personal picture of the woman behind the star. We've had flashes before in tracks like "Brooklyn Baby" or "White Dress", but there's still been an air of mythopoesis in progress. Although "Blue Banisters" still processes the realities of Lana's day to day in her grave songbook filter perfected in 2019's "Norman ***ing Rockwell!", it hints at mundanities and insecurities not only reserved for a satin gowned debutante surveying a two-hectare topiary garden while her cruel paramour leaves.
Del Rey has had a tumultuous time recently - numerous social media snafus have backed her into a defensive corner. How much of this has been constructed and how much is born out of an awkward and ill-advised communication style is hard to judge, but she mostly sidesteps that on "Blue Banisters". Del Rey has long been surfing a backlash started from her conscious decision to tailor her image - she clearly always had ambitions to grab the brass ring of pop superstardom, but the intimate "Video Games" video may have given the wrong "right" impression. She's had a history of clashing with what is expected - the press has been highly critical of her lyrical content, specifically as anti-feminist. Del Rey has been largely unrepentant, unwilling to pay lip service to the topic by including the obligatory "female as unbreakable metal / building / etc." song on her albums.
This time round, she does acknowledge these themes in her idiom, perhaps a reflection of her changing attitude brought on by the increasingly fractious political landscape. The title track of the album (and one of the defining highlights) is a spare ode to sisterhood and support. The song moves on singular piano chords and ambience, while Del Rey's vocal winds around the negative space. Her voice is ethereal in remembrance of the relationship, and solid when conjuring how she is uplifted by communal care. This positivity is echoed in "Violets for Roses", a torch song where she sings about what she lost in a relationship, and what she gained in ending it. She does address the spectre of public perception in highlight "Black Bathing Suit", with its playful pre-emptive dig at her weight gain and how she is still misunderstood by her lover and the world at large. But one almost doesn't notice amidst the revelation that Lana Del Rey's ambitions have changed to wanting to watch TV and eat ice cream with her boyfriend - it's kind of like listening to Lou Reed say he just wanted to play football for the coach. The song resonates with simplicity in the verses, but a restless drum slides in for the chorus, almost turning to a disorganised march at the end to match her shifting mood.
"Blue Banisters" leans into the slow piano led sound present on her last two albums, but it does include some outtakes from the "Ultraviolence" era, and while these are also slow burners, they are mostly haunted by the moody guitar of that early foray into consistency. At the end of "Living Legend", Del Rey almost mimics a scuzzy guitar solo with her vocals, and it sounds textbook "Ultraviolence". All throughout the record she finds inventive new ways to utilise her voice - that remarkable instrument dominates every song (aside from the delightful "If you lie down with me" which ends with an unexpectedly sweet, light horn outro) and is the real draw card. Her uncanny ability to inflate a bare bones track like smoke in a transparent balloon is on full display, even finding an ugly raw place in "Dealer", on which she trades her most impassioned vocal with guest vocalist Miles Kane, who inhabits a more relaxed but equally paranoid space over the languid beat.
Perhaps the only outright disappointment for me is "Arcadia". A track like "Tulsa Jesus Freak" is littered with bizarre poetic lyrics that somehow hold together, but here she cannot match it with the product placement imagery, comparing her lover's hands to a Land Rover and her body to the American landscape. Del Rey has often been able to make clumsy moments work by sheer force of will, but this track folds on the weakness of the conceit like on some of her earlier work. Also, tonally the album is very similar and it spans a long 62 minutes - perhaps one more change up in the last stretch would not have gone amiss.
As with all her records, "Blue Banisters" looks backwards for its sound - everything has a songbook standard feel. However, it expands on the lyrical style of "Norman ***ing Rockwell!", working in highly contemporary references to let us know we're being let in to the here and now (previously these might have been musical cues to establish the "when"). I picture myself moving through LDR's life, perhaps even getting a visit to the garden with a pitcher of spiked iced tea crackling on the table. Her ability to make your imagination work overtime is sorely underrated. And she's making that internal cinema more approachable - when Del Rey says she’s so happy to browse a bookstore again, I can relate. Perhaps this was the last thing that was missing from the storyboard.