27 March 2021 (released)
27 March 2021
Nearly six months after its initially-scheduled release, Chemtrails over the Country Club, Lana Del Rey’s seventh studio album was released last Friday, March 19th, on Interscope and Polydor Records. An ambitious eleven-song corpus clocking in at forty-five-minutes long, Chemtrails finds the reigning queen of neo-surrealist Americana expanding on her kitsch-driven and pop-culture-saturated vision of her native land during a year marked by a global pandemic and the unraveling of the failed Trump presidency.
Building on the stylistic and aesthetic motifs of its predecessor, 2019’s cultural juggernaut Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Chemtrails over the Country Club is the latest over-articulated attempt by Del Rey to expound on the cultural decadence and malaise that have become standard features in the post-industrial and post-ironic age. Replete with self-amusing and referential witticisms as evidenced by the album’s title, Chemtrails marks a departure from the glossy and overtly-theatrical baroque sensibilities that put the singer on the map nearly a decade ago. This doesn’t mean that Lana entirely abandons her satirical and cinematic story-telling, however, or that she foregoes any of the now-expected and familiar instances of swelling melodies and crescendoing faux-orchestral accompaniments. There is still a fair share of self-indulgence found throughout the record. But Del Rey is clever enough to know not to spend all of her songwriting capital on the brazenly histrionic and fatalistic musical montages found ubiquitously throughout the early part of her career.
In Chemtrails, Del Rey leans into her songwriting capabilities more than ever before, canvassing the Great American Song Book in search of a fitting voice with which to spin her tales of boredom and sadness, melancholy and solipsism. This search leads her down musical paths as distinct and varied as the country of which she sings. There are hints of folk and bluegrass peppered throughout the album, and the spirit of outlaw country seems to loom imposingly over the entire piece. Country singer-songwriter Nikki Lane appears as backup in the lonesome ballad “Breaking Up Slowly,” as do country and desert-rock emissaries Zella Day and Weyes Blood in the beautiful and heartfelt cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” From a musical and stylistic standpoint, the record is quite convincing in its post-modern alchemy of traditional American genres. It aptly blends styles associated as much with the zenith and splendor of a bygone era as with the internal sense of loneliness and dislocation that period came to presage.
But for all of its ambition and hutzpah, Chemtrails falls short compared to its predecessor. This is primarily because, thematically, the songs run out of places to go after a certain point. In turn, this deficit in solid songwriting material translates into pieces that seem like rough drafts of what they could have been. One can’t help but feel as though had less effort been spent padding the record with glib quips and overwrought double entendres, and more care been put into vocalizing the real anxieties of a country and a people at the end of the proverbial rope, that the album’s effect might have probably been more striking. As it stands, Chemtrails is neither the massive success nor the colossal disappointment that both fans and critics respectively wished that it was. Instead, it represents an awkward but understandable step forward for an artist who’s built a career out of a fashionable understanding of cultural dissolution and the lowering of the artistic bar which that entails. In that sense, the more that I or anyone else writes about her, one’s personal opinion notwithstanding, the more Lana keeps winning. Frankly, I couldn’t think of anything more Trumpian or American than that.