Lana Del Rey’s ‘Chemtrails…’ Is Refreshingly Unambitious – Which Is Why It’s One Of Her Best

This is no bold reinvention of self; this is a singer doing what they do best.

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Chemtrails over the Country Club, the new album by Lana Del Rey, managed to make waves before anyone had even heard it.

First there was the announcement of that excellent title, a winking reference to criticisms made of Del Rey over her class background, and her perceived (and baseless) closeness to American conservative fringe groups. And then there was the record’s front cover — not to mention Del Rey’s accompanying comments about it — submerging the singer once again in old arguments about her insensitivity when it comes to race.

The album’s first music video seemed designed to continue that maelstrom of thinkpieces and controversies. Depicting Del Rey running alongside a vicious wolf, it was shot through with fire and fury; a thrumming collection of signifiers that announced Del Rey was no longer fucking about.

But the fascinating thing about the album, a quality more evident now the dust made by the internet machine has settled, is precisely how not full of fire and fury the thing is. There are no combative statements of self like, “my pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola”; no bold reinventions of sound, as on Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Rather than a furious new direction, Chemtrails Over the Country Club is an old leather armchair; the sound of a singer in full control of their talents, explaining the world as it seems to them from a place of comfort and new, surprising stability.

That means that there are fewer arresting qualities to the album: fewer moments that will have Del Rey fans jumping up in surprise. But that doesn’t hurt Chemtrails Over the Country Club. In fact, it makes it.

Lana Del Rey Is Now Refreshingly Unambitious

One of the main reasons for the album’s quietness is where it is placed in the Lana Del Rey discography, trailing the all-time pop masterpiece Norman Fucking Rockwell!. After releasing such a bold statement of her future direction and her self, Del Rey had two choices: try something new, or try something more minor. She went for the latter route.

These days, that’s a bold act in itself. We expect our popstars to be Bowie-like chameleons, moving ever forward rather than polishing prior glories. Consider the trajectory of someone like Lil Nas X, who shape-shifted in the months after ‘Old Town Road’ to provide something wholly reinvented in the form of ‘Montero’.

And when musicians do set their sights on smaller shifts — as Nick Cave did with Ghosteen, his sombre follow-up to the career-defining Skeleton Tree — they tend to be ignored, both by the critical establishment and the listening public at large.

But our obsession with forward-direction can hurt us as consumers of pop, making our eyes too wide. We become desensitised to smaller shifts; to refinements.

And Chemtrails Over the Country Club is full of refinements. The opening track, ‘White Dress’, follows the formula of Norman Fucking Rockwell! to a tee, complete with a lilting piano melody and Del Rey’s clear, wide-eyed voice. But it’s no mere facsimile of the past. Del Rey’s time spent as a poet has made her lyrics more careful; less sweeping, and now deeply lived-in. Whereas before she used lines like “goddamn manchild” to make an impact, here she can produce just as much astonishment by listing her lived experiences in as few words as possible.

Even the most controversy-baiting moment in the song, a reference to the same ‘Men In Music Conference’ that Fiona Apple destroyed in ‘Under the Table’, is refreshingly understated. “Down at the men in music business conference,” Del Rey sings. “I only mention it ’cause it was such a scene/And I felt seen.” 

Gone are the electric, Walt Whitman-inspired lines of her last few albums — replaced with a clarity that seems born from William Carlos Williams. There are no thrumming metaphors here — the song is just a singer taking stock of their world, and their past.

Beauty Comes In Small Doses

Del Rey’s other consensus-breaking gambit is to create an album that rewards repeated listens. There is nothing attention-grabbing about Chemtrails over the Country Club; when played in the background, it can sink into near total silence. What it requires is attention, the kind of attention that works of pop art rarely demand of us these days.

The best way to enjoy a song like ‘Wild at Heart’, a David Lynch-inspired ballad that drops in and out of metaphors and melodies like it’s taking a stroll through a field, is to focus on it entirely. Only then will listeners notice the understated power of the way Del Rey lists “camera flashes” and “car crashes“; the way that she uses silence to break up the thing into distinct, fully-realised parts; her skill at restating the song’s title until it becomes one more mantra.

Even the guest spots are gentle.

Even the guest spots are gentle. Nikki Lane, the country singer whose impressive pipes Del Rey enlists for ‘Breaking up Slowly’, gives a performance that feels like a talented musician lazily passing Del Rey a baton back and forth. Del Rey hasn’t selected collaborators who break up her talents or disrupt her sonic world, as she has in the past. Here, her friends are like-minded souls with whom she buries back down deeply into the familiar.

So there are surprises here. They’re just of the easy, minute variety. That’s new for Del Rey. That’s new for pop. And so in an overcrowded, frequently landscape, Chemtrails Over the Country Club frequently feels like a place of calm; a gentle corner of the Earth, in which one can slowly, and with care, catch their breath.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee and a Lana Del Rey stan who Tweets @JosephOEarp.