Chemtrails Over The Country Club is Lana Del Rey at her most honest

It's been a bumpy couple of years but with her new album, Lana proves that she's still one of the most important artists we've got.

by Alim Kheraj
19 March 2021, 9:00am

Image courtesy of Lana Del Rey

Ever since the premiere of Framing Britney Spears, The New York Times documentary that detailed the complex legal situation the singer has been under for over a decade, there have been discussions about the difficulty that women in music face when telling their own stories. Lana Del Rey — whose seventh album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club, is out now — is no exception.

In a piece for The Guardian, the writer Grace Medford detailed how pop’s most powerful women have “historically struggled to control their narratives… until they have ‘paid their dues’”. This usually means that unless unconquerable commercial success is achieved, women in music end up playing a complex game. They must dress right, release the right music, have acceptable dating lives, “and,” Medford writes, “should a derailing event force them to change course, make the right kind of moves in order to retain public favour, as well as authorship of their own stories”. If they don’t, as Britney and others have demonstrated, they will be forced to comply, their stories discredited or appropriated. Refuse to play the game and you’re either dubbed a fraud or silenced.

It’s hard to examine Lana’s career outside of these parameters. As soon as she released her first single, 2011’s “Video Games”, she was caught up in the internet’s then-burgeoning hot take economy. She was dubbed inauthentic for her appearance and an industry plant amid accusations that the volatile, subservient and violent romantic situations she was singing about were anti-feminist. “That moll with the dangerous tastes in men and pastimes and the puffed-out lips and hair?” wrote Jon Caramanica in The New York Times. “Yep, it was a pose.”

While public opinion about Lana has most definitely softened — her last album, 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell (NFR), was met with almost unanimous critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination — the impact of this early blow back has clearly left its mark. In an essay titled “Question for the culture”, which she shared on Instagram, Lana lambasted “female writers and alt singers'' who suggested that her music glamorised abuse. “In reality I’m just a glamorous person singing about the realities of what we are all now seeing are very prevalent, emotionally abusive relationships all over the world,” she wrote. “I’ve been honest and optimistic about the challenging relationships that I’ve had.”

The essay came seemingly out of the blue, but it followed a 2019 tweet Lana sent the critic Ann Powers in response to an in-depth analysis Powers wrote in which Lana was described as having a persona. “I don’t relate to one observation you made about the music,” Lana tweeted. “To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

It’s a curious declaration, one that many struggled to understand. How could Lana — with her heightened old school Americana aesthetic, nihilistic lyrical tendencies, torrid stories of abuse and heartbreak — not be playing some kind of character? Nevertheless, her rebuttal made sense, especially in the context of the vitriol Lana experienced early in her career. “I was discredited for seven years,” she recently told Mojo. “There’s no other way of looking at it.” The notion of a persona, she suggests, negates her artistry.

One should consider this when examining Lana’s latest album, the brilliantly titled Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Unlike NFR, which felt like an artist surveying their surroundings — in this case, the dystopian ruins of the failed experiment that is America, only to find freedom in an understanding that perhaps things have always been this way — Chemtrails feels far more internal. It’s a record about digging your heels into the dirt and asserting yourself and your contradictions once the fires of destruction have abated. If NFR was about figuring out where you find your place in a society that’s beyond repair, then Chemtrails is about looking for liberation from within.

This process begins with recollection. Album opener “White Dress” is languorous and smoky with rose-tinted nostalgia for the privileged liberty of youth. “When I was a waitress / Wearing a white dress / Look how I do this / Look how I got this,” Lana cries out on the chorus, her voice coarse and indelibly breathy, as if she’s clutching at her memories before they dissipate. “I felt free 'cause I was only nineteen… It kinda makes me feel / Like maybe I was better off.”

The album’s title track is less ephemeral, but equally as wistful. It’s a love song, but this romance isn’t tortured or fraught. Instead, the sweetness of domesticity becomes escapism; something to lose yourself in; as Lana puts it, “I'm not unhinged or unhappy. I'm just wild.” The production, reminiscent of the dusty soundscapes of NFR, begins to envelope Lana’s voice in the final chorus as she sings about doing the laundry and watching TV, any uncertainty about the ability to commit relinquishing as she sings, “It's never too late, baby, so don't give up.” Love in this world can still make sex “white hot forever”, as she repeats almost sermonically in “Tulsa Jesus Freak”, but there’s still a twisted, unreal fragility to it — Lana’s voice lightly coated in autotune. “You know when you chose me / I was nothing but ordinary,” she sings, “And now the wind's blowing / Reminding you of what you know.”

There are threats from outside forces, too, namely the oppressive heat of fame. “Time after time, I think about leaving,” she contemplates on “Wild at Heart” after suggesting that she would give up singing. “But you know that I never do, just 'cause you keep me believing.” The very concept of celebrity is rejected (“The cameras have flashes, they cause the car crashes / But I'm not a star”), but only by fleeing can one realise their own potential: “I left Calabasas, escaped all the ashes / Ran into the dark / And it made me wild at heart.”

Such realisations take time to arrive at, and on the claustrophobic Portishead-esque “Dark But Just a Game”, Lana dubs herself a fool for believing that she can be an exception to the rule. Still, there’s conviction in her apparent foolishness. “Play it like a symphony / You know our love's the same / They'll both go down in infamy,” she sings, acknowledging the futile nature of public appeasement and strategic malleability at the cost of one’s self: “The best ones lost their minds / So I'm not gonna change.”  

This understanding of selfhood opens up the rest of Chemtrails, the remaining clouds of smoke disappearing. “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” is the most unfettered song Lana may have ever recorded, extolling the beauty found in aimlessness and her untameable nature: “It's just wanderlust,” she sighs over campfire guitar strums and freestyle jam-session riffs, producer Jack Antonoff’s voice heard echoing in the background. Likewise, “Dance Till We Die”, a free flowing and loose Laurel Canyon-inspired mission statement exudes optimism, a rare friend in Lana’s discography. While she admits that she’s “troubled by my circumstance / Burdened by the weight of fame”, these worries don’t prevent her buoyant sense of self-expression: “We'll keep walkin' on the sunny side,” she sings. “And we won't stop dancin' till we die.”

Then there’s “Yosemite'', a song that Lana originally teased in 2016 but which she called “too happy”. Finally finding a place among the clearing skies found on Chemtrails, Lana and the object of her affection become permanent and unmoveable — the repeated plucks of an acoustic guitar reflective of the repeated turns of the world: “Seasons may change / But we won't change.”

But change, Lana once sang, is a powerful thing and it should not be entirely rejected. The Instagram essay published last year wasn’t just the death knell in discussions about her persona, but it also demonstrated where lessons could still be learned. Instead of just using the essay as an opportunity to share her upset about being painted as an anti-feminist who glamourises abuse, she invoked the names of other female artists, predominantly Black women and women of colour — her suggestion being that these women can sing about being “sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating” and get hits, whereas she gets “crucified”. It was, to put it lightly, an oblivious move, one that was blind to the realities that women of colour, especially Black women, face, and the consistent fight that occurs in order for them to take ownership of their sexuality. Their success hasn’t made them immune to misogyny, and her statement totally ignored the racist hypersexualisation that Black and Asian women experience.

These comments were made worse by Lana’s response to people’s criticism. During a time of heightened racial tensions when white people should be listening to people of colour about their behaviour, she fought back, writing a follow-up post and sharing a number of videos to reject any suggestions that she was racist. These artists, she said, were people she loved. “In truth, making it about race says so much more about you than it does about me,” she wrote. “You want the drama, you don’t want to believe that a woman could be beautiful, strong and fragile at the same time, loving and all inclusive by making personal reparations simply for the joy of doing it.”  It’s clear that Lana should have listened and learned; she should have changed. She is not immune to oppressive grip and violence of whiteness, no matter how inclusive she insists she is.

Nevertheless, her reaction, however misguided, feels consistent with the person who so vehemently denied the existence of persona, even if it was the wrong way to respond. While we can't know for sure the true intentions behind her comments, if she believes that people have perceived her intentions, be they artistic, personal or political, as inauthentic for nearly a decade, then undoubtedly your hackles will be raised. 

“My aim and my message are clear,” Lana wrote in her Insta-essay. “That I have control of my story.” Chemtrails certainly supports this, perhaps more so than any other album that she has released. It’s not necessarily a narrative story, but more a meditation on the person. While there might be truth to their tales, they also paint a psychological profile, a complex portrait of contradictions and fragility and deeply human cravings for love. Chemtrails is Lana Del Rey at her most bare, the songs joyful and reverent and referential and uncertain. She is neither unshackled nor truly emancipated, nor is she that keen to be. Rather, she’s cognisant about the conditions of freedom in our society. As her essay demonstrated, she’s also an active participant in reinforcing them.

But one is not free to disconnect themselves from their feelings. And for Lana, the existence of a persona seems to imply that your emotions can be separated from the self. Exploring her artistry in this way is egregious: she feels what she says; she is what she sings. The absolute truth, the minutiae and detail, becomes irrelevant, as long as there’s an emotional and psychological honesty. It’s how Lana has always managed, in some way, to control her narrative, even if her story has been distorted by others. In that way, Chemtrails is just another demonstration of what she’s always done: be Lana Del Rey. What that actually means, only she can truly know.

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