Chemtrails Over the Country Club
There’s a track on Chemtrails Over the Country Club—Lana Del Rey’s sixth full-length album and the follow-up to 2019’s Norman F*****g Rockwell!—that should have been heard earlier. “Yosemite” was originally written for 2017’s Lust for Life, but, in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe that year, Del Rey revealed the song was “too happy” to make the cut. Its appearance is a neat summation of where you can expect to find the singer here. Total serenity might not have been achieved just yet, but across these 11 tracks, Del Rey, along with returning producer Jack Antonoff, finds something close to peace of mind, reflected in a softer, more intimate and pared-back sound. “Wild at Heart”, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” and “Yosemite”, for example, all brim with (self-)acceptance.
Returning to ”Yosemite” hints at something else, too: an artist looking back to make her next step forward. Chemtrails is scattered with references to its predecessors, from the “Venice Bitch”-reminiscent outro of the title track to “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”, which might be seen as a companion piece to 2012 single “Ride”. Then there are the tracks that could easily have appeared on previous albums (“Tulsa Jesus Freak” wouldn’t be out of place on 2014’s dark-edged Ultraviolence) and lyrics we’ve heard before (“Dance Till We Die”, for example, references “Off to the Races” from her debut album Born to Die, while “Yosemite” calls back to the “candle in the wind” of NFR!'s “Mariners Apartment Complex”). Del Rey’s MO has always been to tweak and refine—rather than reinvent—her sound, bringing her ever closer to where she wants to be. Chemtrails, however, is the first time she’s brought so much of her past into that process. As for where this album takes her? Somewhat unexpectedly towards country and folk inspired by the Midwest, rather than Del Rey’s beloved California; on “Tulsa Jesus Freak”, Del Rey pines after Arkansas.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club makes no reference to the global pandemic in which it was partly created and released. And yet, amid a year of isolation, it was perhaps logical that one of this generation’s best songwriters would look inward. Here, Del Rey’s panoramic examination of America is replaced with something altogether more personal. On opener “White Dress”, she reflects on “a simpler time” when she was “only 19… Listening to White Stripes/When they were white hot/Listening to rock all day long.” It’s a time, more specifically, before she was famous. Nostalgia for it ebbs and flows as Del Rey’s vocals crack and strain, but any regret is short-lived. “I would still go back/If I could do it all again… Because it made me feel/Made me feel like a god.”
Fame—and its pitfalls—are things Del Rey is more intimately acquainted with than most, and are a constant source of conflict on Chemtrails. But, as on “White Dress”, disillusionment most often turns to defiance. This reaches its peak by the album’s midpoint, “Dark but Just a Game”, an outstanding exploration of just how dangerous fame can be—if you let it. Where Del Rey was once accused of glamorising the deaths of young artists who came before her, here, she emancipates herself from that melancholic mythology. “We keep changing all the time/The best ones lost their minds/So I’m not gonna change/I’ll stay the same,” she sings in an uplifting major-chord chorus that seems to look ahead to a better future.
That sunnier disposition doesn’t dispel Del Rey’s unease with fame altogether, but she’s only too aware of what it’s brought her. For starters, the women she’s met along the way—paid tribute on the album’s final three, country-inspired tracks. “Breaking Up Slowly”, a meditation on the tempestuous relationship between Tammy Wynette and George Jones, was written with country singer-songwriter Nikki Lane (who toured with Del Rey in 2019), and Weyes Blood and Zella Day join Del Rey on the final track to cover Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”. On “Dance Till We Die”, meanwhile, the singer celebrates women in music who have come before her—and acted as guiding lights. “I’m covering Joni and I’m dancing with Joan,” she sings. “Stevie’s calling on the telephone/Court almost burned down my home/But god, it feels good not to be alone.” That same track may see her revisit her woes (“Troubled by my circumstance/Burdened by the weight of fame”), but it also finds her returning to an old coping mechanism. Just as on Lust for Life’s “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing” and NFR!’s “Happiness is a butterfly”, it’s time to dance those woes away. “I'll keep walking on the sunny side/And we won't stop dancin' till we die.”