Del Rey's seventh record is a neo-folk comedown that blissfully exists in the afterglow of NFR!'s dazzling high.
After writing the album of her career and one of the defining products of the 2010s on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey returns on her seventh album Chemtrails over the Country Club under an intense spotlight, and not for all the right reasons. NFR! seemed to propel its star to 'voice of a generation' status, with Del Rey being widely acclaimed as one of America's greatest living songwriters following its release in late summer 2019, but the past year has seen the songwriter's reputation come under increased scrutiny - after several misguided public comments were criticized by publications, LDR dug herself deeper with some hostile responses and ill advised Instagram posts that were not well received amongst her fanbase or the wider press, to say the least.
All of which is to say that Del Rey is probably relieved to finish a disastrous promotional rollout for what feels like a long awaited seventh album (mainly due to the fact that Chemtrails was announced on the release date of NFR!, a habit Lana seems to be getting fonder of - the singer has already announced a follow up entitled Rock Candy Sweet for June, set to address her recent critics and controversies in song form - an approach that has the potential to go one way or another but is at least a better platform than a series of Instagram rants), and allow her music to do the talking, which it usually does best.
There's always a feeling of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' when following up a classic album, but the early signs for Chemtrails were promising as 'Let Me Love You Like A Woman' and 'Chemtrails over the Country Club' offered a welcome return to Rockwell's elegant, piano laden symphonies and continued the shift away from Lana's early hip-hop inspired sound in favor of a classic balladeer style which allowed the songwriter to soar to such great heights two years ago.
For its first half, Chemtrails embodies this approach faithfully, offering a continuation of NFR! and its richly crafted piano compositions. Stunning opener 'White Dress' is an arresting piece of whispered falsetto that finds its artist breathlessly reflecting on life before fame and success as a waitress in Long Island. It's a poignant, punchy way to start the album, blending a daring vocal performance with timeless Del Rey touches in its classic Americana imagery and Raymond Carver tales of everyday American life and middle class suburbia.
As Lana singles are wont to do, 'Chemtrails' and 'Woman' reveal themselves in a new light within the context of the record, particularly the latter with its warmly layered vocals and lush piano chords. 'Tulsa Jesus Freak' meanwhile explores vaguely electronic territory with light synths, drum machine backing and a distinctly manipulated vocal performance from Del Rey which uses its autotuned effect in instrumental fashion, harkening back to the Born To Die era in style.
'Wild at Heart' is probably the most purely NFR! track here, boasting dreamy guitar based verses that build to a triumphant big band chorus that's understated yet glorious in its execution and liberating message, yet its after this that the true nature of Chemtrails reveals itself upon entering its midway point, with a series of fingerpicked guitar instrumentals taking over the record as Jack Antonoff's electric, acoustic, slide and twelve string guitars subtly dance around Del Rey's spectacular vocals, most euphonically on majestic centerpiece duo 'Dark but Just a Game' and 'Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost'.
This heavenly formula works to perfection all through the second movement of Chemtrails, juxtaposing the epic orchestration of NFR! with a series of low key pieces that play to their singer's flawless voice while making room for finely drawn differentials in the album's final stages. Country musician Nikki Lane plays off Lana on sultry duet 'Breaking Up Slowly' while 'Dance Till We Die' pays homage to Del Rey's idols Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Stevie Nicks and Courtney Love on the record's most rhythmic number, teeing listeners up with a funky climax before the devastating knock out blow of 'For Free'. A wonderfully envisioned collaboration alongside Weyes Blood and Zella Day, the captivating closer revisits Mitchell's classic 1970s meditation on fame and glory versus musical expression in a gorgeous adaptation that brings the record full circle from the opening refrain of 'White Dress'.
It's a perfect ending to Chemtrails - covering one of the best songs ever penned by arguably the 20th century's greatest female songwriter, while bringing to a close another sublime record that positions its creator as a modern successor to idols like Mitchell and Baez. That's not a statement lightly made, but the streak that Chemtrails continues after Norman Fucking Rockwell! distinguishes Lana Del Rey among the finest songwriters of her generation.
It's somewhat a shame that Chemtrails will forever live in the shadow of Del Rey's defining masterpiece, and as such this is a record that probably won't get the credit it deserves simply by virtue of the fact that it acts as a sequel to a perfect work of art. Yet it would be a mistake not to recognize that Del Rey's seventh album is a spectacular statement in itself - a bold and beautiful proclamation that the 35 year old is still in her prime and thriving creatively like never before. When the dust has settled, Chemtrails over the Country Club will go down as another landmark record in one of the defining musical catalogues of the 21st century - a moment of quiet, stripped back bliss that exists peacefully in the afterglow of a dazzling high.
9.0 / A
Best Tracks: 'White Dress'/'Tulsa Jesus Freak'/'Dark but Just a Game'/'Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost'/'Breaking Up Slowly'/'For Free'
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