“When you know, you know.” What a strange, beautiful phrase – not quite as hazy and cliquish as “If you know, you know,” but still vague in a precious kind of way. It’s more empowering, too, doesn’t leave hope in the hands of fate so much thinly-veiled acceptance, turning it inward. When Lana Del Rey sings it as the refrain to ‘Paris, Texas’, a reworking of SYML’s piano instrumental ‘I Wanted to Leave’, she sounds resigned and almost unrecognizable. It distills the crushing melancholy of the previous track, ‘Fingertips’, into something simpler and cooler, her vocals breathy yet unusually thin. It’s about feeling lost and taking home with you wherever you go, about the lonely realization that this one has lost its luster – or its need for yours. As she faithfully mirrors the waltzing melody, a sense of clarity meets the blurry dissociation that rises when your life’s about to take another turn. The kind of small moment that’s impossible to wrap your head around, one whose weight doesn’t hit until much later.
‘Paris, Texas’ is not the most impressive or innovative song on Del Rey’s new album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, but its bareness renders it a standout. The singer-songwriter’s ninth LP is knotty and full of contradictions; she told Billie Eilish that the critically lauded Norman Fucking Rockwell! “was about world-building, whereas this was straight vibing,” and if that’s the case, the vibes are kind of all over the place. If the 7-minute single ‘A&W’ served as a jarring ride through her various personas, consider how much there is to unpack as the record sprawls over 77 minutes. But the track and the album are similar in that they delicately balance wistful balladry with something playfully audacious and beat-driven. Effortless vibe-shifting aside, however, the real reason Ocean Blvd coheres for me is that it yearns for purpose in a way that not even Norman Fucking Rockwell! did, and it clings to the hope seeping through the cracks even when it’s not as resolute.
‘Paris, Texas’ and ‘A&W’ belong on the same album because, on broad terms, they both aim to carve a path out of emptiness – though zoom out into Ocean Blv, and a more apt way of putting it is that it’s mostly about cutting out the bullshit. ‘A&W’ sucks the air out of itself and dispenses with signifiers to offer something wilder and forward-facing, repurposing the strings from ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ for the sake of complexity, not nostalgia. ‘Paris, Texas’ touches on the theme of escape but strips away Del Rey’s propensity to self-mythologize and address public perception of her. It comes into contrast with ‘Fingertips’ and the preceding ‘Kintsugi’, both devastating songs that highlight her stream-of-consciousness writing, which cleverly undermines the criticisms leveled at her work in recent years – and possibly her own doubts around it. ‘Kintsugi’ is “just another folk song” that finds her “Probably running away from the feelings I get/ When I think all the things about them,” yet there she is tracing them, the tangled mess of grief and mortality. “They say there’s irony in the music, it’s a tragedy/ I see nothing Greek in it,” she contends on ‘Fingertips’, and it’s funny ’cause it’s true: all you can really see is her.
On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey wielded vulnerability like she never had before, in a way that felt both daring and refreshing. 2021’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Banisters stumbled to build upon that vision, but even in the context of her discography, Ocean Blv feels strikingly, unpredictably personal – sometimes to the point of seeming incomprehensible to anyone but her. Duets like ‘Candy Necklace’ with Jon Batiste and even the more conventional ‘Let the Light In’ with Father John Misty make us feel like voyeurs in a haunted, swirling dance with the past. And in Del Rey’s self-contained world, to dance – to swing – is a thing as dangerous and liberating as hope. On the title track, as lush romanticism brushes up with the macabre (“Fuck me to death, love me until I love myself”), she weaves her music through the legacies of Harry Nilsson and Eagles to help her leap over oblivion: “Don’t forget me.”
For all the raw, unhinged desperation here, Ocean Blv works because Del Rey manages to direct it toward reverence, empathy, and wonder throughout. She gets to the heart of things straight away on ‘The Grants’ – “My pastor told me when you leave all you take is your memory” – and sure, she wanders, but she never loses sight of that core lesson. She captures it in her recording of a sermon by megachurch pastor Judah Smith, where she seems more captivated by its bewildering intimacy rather than profundity, and delights in the joyful, inexplicable magic of the Jon Batiste interlude. But her connection with others is most palpable in ‘Margaret’, where she’s joined by frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff on a song about his fiancée Margaret Qualley. “This is a simple song, gonna write it for a friend,” Del Rey offers, but it’s not that simple, not like ‘Paris, Texas’. Seeing his passion leads her to twist the meaning of “When you know, you know” into a hopeful march – toward, not away, from something, and together – but it also allows her to embrace uncertainty as a route to possibility, not another bleak cycle. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll know.” Maybe you’ll keep running down that corridor; maybe you’ll keep it locked off to the public. But no matter what tomorrow brings, make sure to remember.