Arriving a mere seven months after “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” all signs pointed to Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Banisters” being a companion piece. Proximity, it turns out, is all they have in common. While “Chemtrails” found Del Rey channeling singer-songwriters of yesteryear with dreamy Laurel Canyon musings, her latest is imbued with an urgency to reclaim her own narrative, anchoring it in the here and now. She does this by piecing together a musical autobiography that documents family ties, friendships, love affairs, her connection with Los Angeles and even the interpretation of her art.
Del Rey made her intentions clear from the outset. “I’m writing my own story,” she tweeted, while first teasing “Blue Banisters” in April. “And no one can tell it but me.” Her need to set the record straight stems from a spate of negative articles that attacked everything from her brand of feminism to her choice in face masks. Feeling the need to explain herself has resulted in a transparency that makes the album an outlier in Del Rey’s discography. She has always been an expert world-builder, but never has one of them felt as lived-in and true.
“Text Book,” the album opener, addresses two recurring themes in Del Rey’s work: her absent father and resulting daddy issues. Only this isn’t a simple exercise in self-therapy. The artist actively joins the dots, showing the causal relationship between the two as well as her inability to undo that emotional programming. For someone accused of wallowing in misery (she addresses that accusation directly on the aptly titled “Beautiful”), “Text Book” offers hope — however faint — that something healthier is, in fact, possible. The song is also notable for its very modern setting. “There we were, screamin’ ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the crowd,” she sings in the chorus, the first of many references carbon-dating the album to 2020-21.
The most notable example is perhaps “Black Bathing Suit,” a sprawling, five-minute master class in self-analysis and observation. On it, Del Rey mentions quarantine, Zoom and Target parking lots in the same verse before alluding to lockdown weight gain. “The only thing that still fits me is this black bathing suit,” she memorably quips on the pre-chorus. “Black Bathing Suit” is also notable for its dizzying production, which reflects an ambition and willingness to experiment sonically — the song closes with a literal growl that would make Samuel T. Herring proud — not seen since 2015’s vastly underrated “Honeymoon.”
“Violets for Roses” is another time capsule of pandemic life. “The girls are runnin’ ’round in summer dresses, with their masks off and it makes me so happy,” Del Rey begins the track. “Larchmont Village smells like lilies of the valley.” The setting is idyllic, but the relationship presented is quite the opposite. However, instead of succumbing to the allure of self-destruction, “Violets For Roses” is about peeling yourself away from a toxic situation — making it another rebuttal of the claim that she glamorizes darkness and despair.
She continues with that theme on the “Mr. Brightside”-referencing “Thunder” by presenting a cratering love affair that morphs into a cautionary tale. “If hello just means goodbye then, baby, better walk away,” she advises. Perhaps the most evolved and philosophical rumination on love is the Mike Dean-produced “Wildflower Wildfire.” Built on wisdom born from mistakes, the song captures the realization that love can be nurtured but never guaranteed. It’s hopeful in a world-weary kind of way. These are no longer the musings of an ingenue, but rather a grown woman who understands that happiness is fleeting.
While the references are timely, the themes are timeless. The achingly lovely title track is an ode to female friendship, while “Arcadia” unravels Del Rey’s borderline-spiritual affinity with Los Angeles. She not only feels inspired by the City of Angels, but also sees herself reflected in the jagged geography and accumulation of lost souls looking for something. It’s Del Rey’s poetic way of repudiating the statement that she has hidden behind a persona. The singer-songwriter might not be a Cali girl by birth, but its influence upon her is genuine and profound.
The album’s scrapbook-like approach is underlined by the inclusion of a handful of tracks recorded in 2013 with ex-boyfriend Barrie James O’Neill. Originally intended for “Ultraviolence,” the songs “If You Lie Down With Me” and “Nectar of the Gods” have found their perfect home on “Blue Banisters.” Instead of describing her personal history, Del Rey literally shares a piece of it. The experience is something akin to reading old love letters: intimate and deeply affecting. “Cherry Blossom,” another unearthed demo, this time co-written by long-time collaborator Rick Nowels, is a lilting lullaby that segues perfectly into the moving album-closer.
Co-written with her sister and father, “Sweet Carolina” finds Del Rey singing to an unborn child — complete with references to crypto currency and an iPhone 11. It’s the kind of lyrical potluck that is quintessentially her own. “Blue Banisters” might lack the majesty of “Norman Fucking Rockwell” or the commercial sheen of “Born To Die,” but it offers a rare glimpse of an artist securing her legacy, one song at a time.