Lana Del Rey maintains a low profile after a year of controversy on her docile seventh studio album.
2019 was a good year to be Lana Del Rey. Her sixth studio album, memorably entitled Norman Fucking Rockwell!, was her most acclaimed to date, garnering two Grammy nominations for Song and Album of the Year. Though it lost those two trophies, it was still widely regarded as the album of the year, topping Metacritic and Album of the Year’s year-end aggregates. And it wasn’t hard to see why: the production and songwriting were sharper than any of her previous works, benefitting from a longer incubation period – the album was released two and a half years after its predecessor, a record for Del Rey – and executive production from the prospective pop iconoclast Jack Antonoff.
In the eighteen months that have since followed Norman Fucking Rockwell‘s release, however, it has been less than desirable to be Del Rey. She endured a barrage of negative press, largely of her own volition. In May of 2020, she took to Instagram where she bemoaned the public’s relationship with other women musicians by name. Name dropping everyone from Beyoncé and Cardi B to Camilla Cabello and Ariana Grande, she pondered, “Can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful, being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money — or whatever I want — without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorizing abuse?” When the criticism poured in, rather than letting it wash away, she rolled in the mud with it. While that controversy has since been followed up mesh masks and the caucacity of her album cover, that initial carnage has far outlasted the others.
Heading into ‘Chemtrails,’ Lana Del Rey has found herself to be an underdog, needing to both match the career zenith she reached with its predecessor as well as quash her controversies. With those tasks in mind, Del Rey sticks to what she knows best: Americana. She strips away the roaring 20s grandeur of ‘Rockwell’ in favor of singer-songwriter tunes from the heartland, traversing from Nebraska to Louisiana and inevitably back to her favorite state in the union: California. That sonic reconfiguration resonates particularly well today, given that nothing feels grand in a pandemic-ridden America, and the country’s idolizations have shifted from the COVID ravaged cities back toward the safety of the suburbia.
Yet the listen is just as breezy and halcyon as one can imagine a day at the country club would be like, never brash and perhaps even slightly prude. While her last album boasted a cosmic-sized f-bomb in its title, not a single track here wears the ‘explicit’ badge, a shocking first in her discography. Antonoff is brought on once more to handle the production, but there’s very little emulation of their (or his) previous work, as Del Rey takes a machete to his pop sensibilities and drops the bombastic percussion that defined Born To Die and Ultraviolence. The album’s sound is as plain as its cover, devoid of variation in the vein of uniformity.
What remains in the wake of this redesign is Del Rey’s impeccably shrewd pen. Like the “Mariner’s Apartment Complex,” she incorporates comically clunky phrases into her lyrics without an ounce of regret; here, it’s the “Men in Music Business Conference.” And while she notably breaks the meter with the latter, the choice is deliberate, a tiny rebellion in a record full of obedience. In the opener “White Dress,” she riffs off of the color like an orator, going from a white dress to the “white-hot” White Stripes over to Kings of Leon at a neck-breaking pace. While her lyrics have always been a highlight of her artistry, her melodies are also finally beginning to catch up.
For all of her geographic voyages across the album, The Country Club feels like a pitstop between destinations; between what may have been the apex of her artistic career in 2019, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This is not the tour de force that many had hoped from her, but it’s pleasant enough to tide one over while she gathers the might to strike with fortitude again.