The mythos of Lana Del Rey has taken many forms throughout her decade-long career. Her affinity for the vintage and the luxe of yesterday has always demanded curiosity from both her fans and critics, as they tried to dissect a persona so well crafted it was basically a fortress. She became a symbol of pop culture, specifically in America, that played into basic intrinsic wants (love, sex, fame) and their intrinsic fears (abandonment, loneliness, death), while eschewing the accessibility we've come to expect from celebrities. But it wasn't until 2019's Norman Fucking Rockwell! that the culture explicitly recognised how much Lana Del Rey has defined it.
Topping almost every major end of year list of 2019, earning an Album Of The Year nomination at the 2020 Grammy Awards and heralded as one of America's greatest songwriters by Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift, the pressure on Lana Del Rey to maintain that reverence was on. And, despite all odds, Chemtrails Over The Country Club might just do it.
If Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a very LDR take on the American Dream, Chemtrails Over The Country Club encapsulates the American Nightmare. Even by title, we see Del Rey contrast modern conspiracies with old Hollywood luxe. She's ready to explicitly explore the underbelly of the land she holds so dearly, while refusing to lose sight of hope. The title track feels like an ode to this, ruminating in the mundanities of dating while the world collapses around her – "Suburbia, The Brentwood Market / What to do next? Maybe we'll love it / White picket, chemtrails over the country club".
While there's countless references to the US throughout – Yosemite, Orlando, Louisiana, Arkansas, Sunset Boulevard – the biggest takeaway we get from Lana's exploration of her home's dark side is that she can never escape her highs and lows. The American Nightmare is the acceptance of failure in a land marketed to us as one of success and opportunity. While Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a markedly more delicate album than most of her recent work, it's also more explicitly autobiographical. This is an artist who has challenged what it means to be authentic; she revels in toying with how she can show her true self in mysterious and foggy ways. But here, she is more self-referential than ever.
She laments her fame in the stunning opener "White Dress" – "Down at the Men in Music Business Conference / I felt free 'cause I was only nineteen" – and her touring life on "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" – "The thing about bein' on the road / Is there's too much time to think / About seasons of old". She also gestures towards her success and cultural impact, name-dropping collaborators like Stevie Nicks and Joan Baez on "Dance Till We Die". No longer is she placing herself in an era she radiates. In 2021, Del Rey has her feet planted firmly in the ground.
Given Lana Del Rey's public persona has been almost impossible to ignore in the past two years, it seems fitting that this is her most autobiographical album to date. Notoriously averse to press, she's taken to social media to respond to others' opinions on her art, and not without controversy. She memorably responded to accusations her song lyrics are anti-feminist by citing a slew of women of colour who she argued did the same thing. After her comments received understandable pushback, Lana doubled down. She also pre-emptively and unnecessarily defended herself against supposed critique of her album cover (a critique no-one else seems to have seen). Her involvement reads like someone who's fed up – with being called fake, inauthentic or untalented – and is now breaking free of her own restraints. She has continued to keep that energy – Lana Del Rey is no longer sitting and letting critics pan her, no matter how valid the criticism is. She now demonstrates and asserts her strength as clear as day, deflecting anything she might perceive as an attack in order to cling to what she has, and what's earned for herself.
Of course, Del Rey has every right to respond, but people also have every right to criticise. This makes for a persona that isn't as one dimensional as some might have liked. Her social media presence has become tempestuous as opposed to her trademark brand of mystique – not that she can't be, isn't and hasn't always been, all of the above. Lana Del Rey is making her complexities and contradictions known; a transition characterised in Chemtrails Over The Country Club. While still maintaining the essence of Lana's music that has made her so popular, it features more experimentation than its predecessors. "White Dress" is almost completely sung in a higher register, immediately taking fans by surprise after a decade of famously deep vocalisations. "Breaking Up Slowly" sees Lana match country singer Nikki Lane's summery Southern twang and open herself up to potential new genres in the future. "Tulsa Jesus Freak" even has Del Rey finally experiment with autotune and "Dance Till We Die" concludes with a boombastic jazz outro that essentially has Del Rey screaming, all merely adding to the chaos.
But despite that, this is an album that doesn't contain the trip-hop stylings of Born To Die, the beachside strums of Ultraviolence or the opulent grandeur of Norman Fucking Rockwell! Jack Antonoff helps to offer a deft touch on Chemtrails Over The Country Club in lieu of the lush strings of some of its predecessors. The outro to the standout title track is nothing but a dimming drum line. The country-folk hum of "Dark But Just A Game" is incredibly subtle, spotlighting Lana's forlorn vocals. The closing track, where Lana covers Joni Mitchell's "For Free'' alongside Weyes Blood and Zella Day, gets its beauty from the way the three artists harmonise, echoing visuals of the three of them standing side-by-side on stage singing in almost complete a capella. It's a commanding end to an album that sees Del Rey stand tall, arms linked with two artists she has inspired directly after paying tribute to some that inspired her, staring down her critics, daring them to say something else.
There will no doubt be books written about how Lana Del Rey mystified, subverted, defined and subtly dominated modern pop culture. Consider that she arguably has fewer fans than Justin Bieber, who released his latest album on the same day as Chemtrails Over The Country Club, but continues to dominate the discourse. She yields that much power over society, and only time will tell how far she can take it. The album continues her endless quest to figure out what it means to be American by portraying herself with more clarity and less mystery than ever before. In my opinion, there isn't another artist alive today that at once sparks so much adoration as she does anger. Her unshakable self-assuredness endears some while infuriating others. As much as it seemed like she could stand in her own way, Chemtrails Over The Country Club is going to continue to endear and infuriate, mostly because, well, it's simply very good.