Even in the world of stan-dom, Lana Del Rey fans can be alarmingly intense. People who are ordinarily calm and composed will suddenly get slightly wild-eyed when her name is mentioned, their voices growing breathy as if channeling her, saying, “Oh, I love her!” and gushing in an almost hypnotized way that seems to carry beyond just her music. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon — Prince and Madonna fans, among many others, can be the same way — but it speaks most of all to her formidable skill at self-mythology. No matter who she actually is as a person, Lana Del Rey — the persona, the character, the brand — is quite a creation.
What does all that have to do with an album review? More than most artists, it’s difficult to separate Del Rey’s music from that persona (not to mention some of her distasteful social-media comments), and maybe we’re not supposed to. But the disadvantage is that the mystique can overshadow the music. And that’s a shame, because Del Rey is an innovative, prolific artist — not to mention one of the most imaginative and hilarious lyricists working today — who continually challenges herself while usually knowing just how far she can push her musical boundaries. Each of her albums has a loose musical theme — the noir-pop of “Born to Die,” the cinematic arrangements of “Honeymoon,” the ‘70s SoCal vibe of “Lust for Life” — and her two most recent ones, which see her collaborating primarily with Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, the Chicks, St. Vincent), have a hushed, low-key feel.
With the new “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” that low-key vibe is languid even by Lana standards. It dispenses with most of the orchestrations and lush keyboards of its predecessor, “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” and keeps the tempos slow and the arrangements much more spare, with long passages accompanied only by guitar or keyboard.
The album starts off strong, leading with the apparently autobiographical “White Dress,” a look back at her early years (“Just singing in the street/ Down at the Men in Music Business Conference/ I felt free ’cause I was only nineteen”). It’s filled with references to Sun Ra, Kings of Leon and the White Stripes, as well as one of her favorite themes — summer, in this case seemingly connoting a farewell to youth. It also finds her pushing at the edges of her sound, with the music carrying a vaguely Van Morrison feel while she sings portions of the song at the very top of her range.
The album’s strongest songs follow — the title track and “Wild at Heart” may have the best melodies, “Tulsa Jesus Freak” serves up her familiar white-trash-fabulous theme — but at around the midway mark it starts getting even more languid, like the wine or the meds are kicking in and… mmm… can’t we just sit here on the couch for a while longer? (To be fair, it may be the pandemic kicking in.)
However, the slow tempos don’t detract from her always-vivid lyrics: “Breaking Up Slowly,” a duet with Nikki Lane, mentions tragic country legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones, although it’s not very country-sounding. There are the familiar themes of California and Jesus — and where “Rockwell” had one “Candle in the Wind” reference, this album has two. And she flexes about some of her recent collaborations on “Dance Til We Die”: “I’m coverin’ Joni [Mitchell] and I’m dancin’ with Joan [Baez] / Stevie [Nicks] is callin’ on the telephone.”
On cue, the album’s closing track is indeed a Joni cover: “For Free,” from her generation-defining 1970 album “Ladies of the Canyon.” It’s a duet with Zella Day and Weyes Blood, the latter of whom does a jaw-droppingly accurate Joni impersonation that ends the song and the album.
Del Rey has released six albums and loads of stray songs in less than nine years — and that’s not even including her two prior, fledgling efforts, and the spoken-word album she and Antonoff dropped last year — adding up to around a hundred songs. Keeping things fresh for oneself, let alone for fans, is a constant challenge for any artist, and it’s one that Del Rey rises to with impressive consistency. But self-parody is always just a heartbeat away, and her tendency to work primarily with a familiar pod of collaborators can make things repetitive. “Chemtrails” is a progression in some ways but a holding pattern in others — we’re most interested to see where she goes next.