The debate that Lana Del Rey sparked since her arrival ten years ago has largely been one of authenticity, and it wasn’t until 2019’s critically lauded Norman Fucking Rockwell! that the world at large started taking her more seriously. The reason it worked so well had less to do with the impression that she was no longer projecting a persona – sincerity had in fact always been a quality she could pull off, but shaking off the excess and refining her songcraft pushed it further into the foreground. Her lyrics, more cutting and introspective than ever, were given a chance to shine against Jack Antonoff’s delicate, minimalist production, which matched the cinematic splendor of her performances without overshadowing them. Two years later, it’s still hard to deny the songs’ uncompromising power, even if a number of controversies further complicated the public image of a woman whose art already seemed riddled with contradictions.
Her latest, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, once again reveals a fascination with the act of myth-making, a reminder that those contradictions are part of what defines her and the problematic history of a country she’s been accused of glorifying. The word the singer keeps coming back to, the only one that seems to contain that complexity, is wild: “If you love me, you love me, because I’m wild at heart,” she sings; the album’s biggest declaration, possibly aimed at the same people who “took my sadness out of context,” arrives on the title track: “I’m not unhinged or unhappy/ I’m just wild.” Though many of the tropes – or even just vibes – that have pervaded much of her discography are more prominent here than on NFR!, the album is far from a regression, and still feels like the next step in her artistic trajectory. It just happens not to be the same kind of leap that its predecessor was, and rarely brings out the wild spirit she keeps referring to.
Chemtrails is a lighter and less ambitious affair than NFR!, lacking the swell or grandeur that made the latter such a staggering listen. But the decision to pare things back feels appropriate, allowing both Del Rey and Antonoff, who returns as producer and also co-wrote most of the songs, to hone in on the finer details. Del Rey has to work on making her delivery cut through without relying on layers of instrumentation; Antonoff is forced to operate outside his glossy trademark style. The album’s opening track and third single, ‘White Dress’, embodies that approach to riveting effect: Del Rey reminisces on a time before she was famous, throwing in references to White Stripes and Kings of Leon for context, and her voice rises to a throaty, near-squeaky falsetto on the chorus: “Down at the Men in Music Business Conference,” she whispers in a rush, “I only mention it ’cause it was such a scene/ And I felt seen.” The words carry an electric charge that’s unlike anything Del Rey has done before, the seen hinting at both nostalgic reverence and discomfort. The song stretches out to 5:34 minutes but avoids any dramatic finish that might have marked the previous album as Antonoff keeps the tension on a light simmer with lightly brushed percussion and subtle touches of piano.
None of the songs that follow reach the same level of greatness, falling back on familiar ground and taking fewer risks in the process. But even if Lana’s lyrics aren’t as quotable or compelling as they have been in the past, the songwriting is still generally solid if at times forgettable: ‘Let Me Love You Like a Woman’, ‘Dark But Just A Game’, and ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost’ are pleasant enough as they luxuriate in a familiar kind of languor, but fail to offer a twist or detail that would sharpen their impact. Thankfully, the album quickly picks up after that: the spare ‘Yosemite’ is a love song as exquisite as any, while the second half of ‘Dance Til We Die’ finds Lana leaning into funkier, more dynamic territory. “I’m covering Joni,” she sings on the latter, then does just that, teaming up with Zella Day and Weyes Blood for a gorgeous rendition of ‘For Free’, from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon.
By closing the album with a cover, Del Rey concludes the loose narrative that began with her alone and ends with an artist who’s found her place among her peers and the wider cultural landscape. Chemtrails itself is a mix of Lana’s more modern trip-hop stylings and the traditional America she’s always been influenced by, but her voice often fades into the background, and ending with another singer’s voice seems to be as much an acknowledgment of that as it is a sign of sisterhood. Though more hushed than its predecessor, her wildness still occasionally comes to the fore, assuring us that even if the ideas she embraces veer closer to myth than reality, she still engages with them from a place of earnestness. Constructing her own world is just part of what she does, and no one does it quite like her. With another album already set to come out later this year, it’ll be interesting to see how much of it she decides to tear down and rebuild.