Before the world had barely a chance to take in her last album, Lana Del Rey seemed poised to make another statement. A day after the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club this March, she announced another album called Rock Candy Sweet, which came with the promise of confronting many of the criticisms surrounding cultural appropriation and glamorizing domestic abuse that had been leveled against her. We still don’t know if that album is Blue Banisters, which was later announced and attached to a July 4 release date before finally arriving last Friday. But the delayed rollout, whether intentional or not, seems to have worked in her favour: the singer-songwriter deactivated her social media accounts last month, distancing herself from the world in a way that suits the quiet resolve that permeates much of Blue Banisters. Before that, she assured us the album would simply tell her story “and does pretty much nothing more.” And, when sharing the single ‘Arcadia’, she instructed fans to “Listen to it like you listened to ‘Video Games,” a suggestion that seemed to have less to do with reclaiming past fame than the desire to shake off any assumptions that have enshrouded her in the decade since.
“Let’s keep it simple, babe/ Don’t make it complicated,” she pleads at the start of ‘Beautiful’, as if knowingly wishing for the impossible. A part of Blue Banisters seems to aspire to that kind of unguarded simplicity; though the introspective, confessional focus of the writing has been a marker of her work since at least 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and the song structures suggest a similar reverence for the traditional singer-songwriter aesthetic of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, there is raw, sobering quality to both her poetry and her delivery that feels like a welcome change. Her perspective is vividly anchored in the present: on ‘Black Bathing Suit’, she grapples with a breakup while referencing Zoom calls and trips to Target and wanting someone to “eat ice cream with and watch television.” The languid façade of ordinarieness is broken with a series of twists that evoke a sense of unease and desperation, the same kind that makes opener ‘Text Book’ feel both sincere and conflicted in its vulnerability.
If Blue Banisters finds Del Rey torn between a life of simplicity and freedom, it works because it doesn’t veer completely in either direction. ‘Violets for Roses’ addresses that conflict directly, condemning a man for trying “trade in my new truck for Rollses”; on ‘Wildflower Wildfire’, she embraces the wildness of spirit that thematically ran through much of Chemtrails – “Baby, I’ll be like a wildflower/ I live on sheer willpower” – while acknowledging the delicate balance of living on your own terms without compromising your relationship with others and turning into something “that burns, burns, burns.” It’s this complexity and self-awareness that distinguishes the writing on Blue Banisters, which embodies its lyrical concerns by taking significantly more risks than its predecessor – even if they don’t all land with the same impact.
Both lyrically and sonically, Del Rey engages with ideas that have been prominent throughout her discography, a contrast to the limited if similarly self-mythologizing perspective of Chemtrails. ‘Black Bathing Suit’ returns to Born to Die-era themes of being a “bad girl,” though the ambiguity of the song prevents it from being either ironic or reclamatory, and it doesn’t flesh out a hazy middle ground the way the same song does when approaching heartache. There are nods to Del Rey’s flirtations with hip-hop and R&B, be it on the trap-inflected Ennio Morricone score on ‘Interlude – The Trio’ or the Lust for Life-esque ‘Dealer’, a Miles Kane duet from an abandoned 2017 collaborative LP with Alex Turner and Kane’s side project the Last Shadow Puppets. ‘If You Lie Down With Me’, another dramatic highlight on the album, is an offcut from 2014’s Ultraviolence originally written with her ex-boyfriend Barrie James O’ Neill.
At her best, Del Rey has a remarkable way of recontextualizing those moments through both her incisive writing and her performances. ‘Dealer’ wouldn’t be nearly as immersive were it not for her wailing voice slicing through its typically somber atmosphere; though the album does rely heavily on her signature breathiness, it’s not a stretch to say it features some of the most forceful and breathtaking vocals she has ever recorded, even when they’re jarringly processed through a wah-wah pedal on ‘Living Legend’. She spells out things we already know, then rearranges the frame to give them a deeper meaning: on ‘Beautiful’, she sings of her ability to “turn blue into something beautiful,” but the real poetry is in how it juxtaposes her artistic musings with palpable relationship dynamics; it’s essentially a personal affirmation to someone telling her not to be sad that the sadness can be enriching.
There’s a bold playfulness in the way Blue Banisters combines disparate aesthetics, bridging the cinematic grandeur of NFR! with the pared-down arrangements of Chemtrails. It’s an especially notable achievement considering Jack Antonoff, with whom she worked closely on both albums, isn’t involved, and she collaborated instead with a wide range of co-writers and producers, including Drew Erickson, Gabe Simon, and Zachary Dawes, as well as actual family members. The result might be less cohesive than her other 2021 album and not nearly as revelatory as her 2019 masterpiece, but it’s a frequently strange and arresting collection of songs that finds her continuing to push her sound into uncharted territory. On the heartfelt ‘Sweet Carolina’, which credits her father and sister as co-writers, it’s clear that the line “You name your babe Lilac Heaven/ After your iPhone 11/ ‘Crypto forever,’ screams your stupid boyfriend/ Fuck you, Kevin,” as quotable as it might be, is more of a uniquely human touch than an act of provocation. Like the most thrilling moments on Blue Banisters, it opens the door to a different kind of intimacy.