Chemtrails Over the Country Club review – An understated masterpiece

Album:
Chemtrails on the Country Club

Artist:
Lana Del Rey

Label:
Interscope

Kind:
Pop

For Lana Del Rey, one dress can contain multitudes. On Summertime Sadness, from her debut album, Born to Die, a red dress was a passport to freedom, an exit hatch from the gloom of reality. The scarlet robe was back on 2014’s Cruel World of Ultraviolence, deployed once again as a metaphor for breaking free from shackles and entering a pop fantasy of one’s own design.

A dress also features in her new record – but this time the color has changed, as well as the context. “When I was a waitress,” Del Rey sings in an exhaling coo, “wearing a white dress. . .”

White dress is one of the most diartic tracks Del Rey has ever written, and it’s telling that it’s the song she chooses to open her seventh long play (LP) with. Authenticity – if it matters, whether pop stars covet it or shun it – is something Del Rey has had to engage with throughout his career. And that’s the subject she tackles head-on here, deploying her choice of clothing as a metaphor for innocence and nostalgia for her glory days.

Sadness, in and out of season, is the recurring theme. White Dress sees Del Rey return to his days as a hard-working entertainer, paying the bills by working as a waitress

With her debut hit, Video Games, in 2011, the popular line on Del Rey was that she was David Lynch’s fever dream come true. But the idea that she was selling an artificial version of herself – that the artist, born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, was “playing” the role of Lana – immediately angered the singer.

She hasn’t always analyzed the critics well, it’s true. Whether it’s lashing out at reporters — knocking is always a bad look for musicians — or writing stream-of-consciousness Instagram posts evoking Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B (who sparked allegations of racism), Del Rey sometimes seemed to have a fragile and slightly desperate grip on his own narrative.

But she is winningly insured on Chemtrails Over the Country Club, a project in dialogue with fame, hate and the confusing state of “Being Lana”. It may sound like an exercise in navel-gazing — and to some extent, it is. Yet it’s also an understated masterpiece, less incandescent than the Norman F**king Rockwell of 2019! but, in its sleepy way, no less irresistible.

Del Rey’s songwriting has always leaned towards the boredom of minor keys. And that’s still the case here as she reunites with Lorde, Taylor Swift and St Vincent collaborator Jack Antonoff and Rick Nowels, New Radicals alum and co-writer with Del Rey of Summertime Sadness.

Sadness, in and out of season, is the recurring theme. The aforementioned white dress sees Del Rey look back on her years as a hard-working entertainer, paying the bills by working as a waitress and staking her future at a music conference in Orlando. “I wasn’t famous,” coos Del Rey. “Kind of makes me feel / Like maybe I was better off.”

Chemtrails require total buy-in from the listener. It’s serious, the beat never rises beyond a dizzy squeak

Elegiac and self-paced, the songs that follow live up to Del Rey’s presentation of Chemtrails as a “country folk” album. This, however, is a rhapsody with plenty of blue in its soul: the title track, for example, finds the artist awash in jewels, hanging out with the 1% even as she discerns, just on the horizon, a darkness imminent. (“Me and my sister just playing cool / Under the chemtrails above the country club”).

As with all of its work, Chemtrails demands full buy-in from the listener. It’s serious, the pace never increases beyond a giddy squeak. And some of the choices don’t quite land. She duels with country star Nikki Lane on Break up slowly.

But on Not all who wander are lost, Del Rey plucks the chorus from a line of poetry in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Hoping Dua Lipa’s next record will be inspired by David Eddings’ The Belgariad.)

Still, these are ultimately quirks rather than quibbles and take nothing away from Del Rey’s mastery of vision. Now, more than ever, she stands as pop’s most singular talent.

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