Lana Del Rey’s 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was always going to be a tough act to follow. Frustrated by and disinterested in previous material, I appreciated the bolder songwriting and arrangements that felt more considered. Del Rey relied less on the tropes that made her one of the biggest pop stars of the 2010s, and - with the help of Jack Antonoff – finally produced music that matched the scope of her huge vision. Chemtrails Over the Country Club is softer, smaller and slower, with no “Venice Bitch” to be found. Whilst it results in a few languid moments, the album is generally successful in its understated approach. Del Rey’s brand of dream pop has never felt more soothing.
Chemtrails opens with the piano ballad “White Dress”, a reflective nostalgia trip that features an incredibly distinct vocal performance. The hushed falsettos feel strained, but they do create a unique sense of intimacy. It’s pure melodrama, true to form. The title track, meanwhile, is one of the strongest moments on the record, retaining the ’70s folk pop style that made NFR! such an engrossing listen. Del Rey sings of her disillusionment with suburban life in trademark literal fashion: ‘I’m not bored or unhappy, I’m still so strange and wild.’
Del Rey’s poetry has been contentious since 2012’s Born to Die and, unfortunately, there are more mishaps here. Though there is beauty in the simplicity of a line like ‘I love you lots like like polka dots’, it’s soon eradicated by the follow up of ‘you’re killing me more than coffee pots and Insta thots.’ The best lyrical moments often get lost amid flimsy cliches. I appreciate the sense of innocence and naivety attached to musings that are so unmoved by the use of metaphors and subtle symbolism. However, as “Yosemite” shows, there is a limit: ‘We did it for fun, we did it for free/I did it for you, you did it for me.’
Chemtrails can be frustrating, yet it possesses something that constantly calls for me to return. It’s easy to get lost in Del Rey’s wistful tales, particularly with the gloriously cinematic backdrops. Occasionally it feels formulaic, but a song like “Dark But Just A Game” will enter and offer a different sound, all whilst retaining the key seductiveness. Overall, the record feels like a gratifying mid-career reflection, with hints of what could lie ahead. Not an overwhelming triumph like NFR!, then, but rarely does lightning strike twice.
7 out of 10
I once wrote that Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age could slur his way through a phone book and still be the coolest man in the room. Lana Del Rey has a similar gift, though with a different specialty. She could read a grocery list and still conjure smoky visions of love and cigarettes.
Much of Chemtrails Over the Country Club is vintage Del Rey (in both senses of the word), though the curious thing about the record is that it flies highest when she sounds least like herself. The songs flicker between sepia and technicolor, giving a tantalising sense of where she might go next.
The ‘sepia’ tunes are stripped-down and richly harmonised, feeling almost like ghosts of Del Rey’s tried and tested formula. The title track and “Let Me Love You Like a Woman” are examples of it working. “Wild at Heart” is an example of it not. There are as many misses as hits, but even the latter hold their own as husky melodic loops.
The glimpses of a livelier, looser Del Rey are what gives the record its spark. “Dark but Just a Game” is so immediate and warm and lovely — think Eels, or Portishead — that almost feels like it belongs on a different album. And then there’s the horn-soaked rock breakdown at the end of “Dance Till We Die”, where Del Rey sounds like she’s in the midst of the ‘60s instead of just being nostalgic for them. It’s terrific.
Neither ‘side’ of the album feels fully formed but there’s enough quality in both to make the album a rewarding, sometimes surprising listen. Lana Del Rey can certainly weave a mood. Here’s hoping she builds on the new ground explored here.
7 out of 10
I think I need new ears. My current pair seem to miss most of what Lana Del Rey’s latest release has to offer. Chemtrails Over The Country Club tries to be stripped back, but most of the tracklist comes off as muted, smudging the more colourful character of tracks on Norman Fucking Rockwell! into a wispy cloud.
“White Dress” opens with a half-whispered, delicate piano ballad which swells and simmers to its conclusion with splashy cymbals and doleful guitar sliding around to the left. It’s effective, but less so when it goes on to cover large swathes of the album. In trying to remove some of the glitzy pop of previous records it feels as though some of the colour has washed away with it too. There’s no “Venice Bitch” here, there’s not even the cinematic drama that Born to Die offered, and fans seemed to be clamouring for prior to NFR!.
The album does have its moments. “Dark But Just A Game” has some of the most interesting instrumentation and production choices on the album. The contrasting dry and reverb-y vocals between verse and chorus, the minimal beat, the trembling keys in the background. It’s a track that feels like a stripped-back pop song, and it’s hard not to make the Portishead reference alongside everyone else. “Dance Till We Die” is only notable for its second half, which suddenly gets all saxy and funky, as Lana’s vocal on the bridge howls out. I’d jump at an album closer to that vibe than what Chemtrails offers. The closing cover of “For Free” exemplifies the rest of the album, layering on a wisp of extra instrumentation without doing much with the track. Unfortunately, I think Weyes Blood shines brighter than Lana here, and I prefer Joni’s original overall.
Lyrically, Lana Del Rey can paint a picture, but polka dots and Insta thots and rhyming ‘meant’ with ‘mean’ doesn’t do much for me. Some other notable lines are those referencing bands of the ’00s, which didn’t work out well for Glass Animals last year either.
This album hasn’t moved me much. Del Rey’s big, produced sound has been dampened, leaving a soft, samey tracklist in its place. I’d love to hear more of that “Dark But Just A Game” closeness, or “Dance Till We Die” funk, or even a return of the shine or drama of NFR! and Born To Die. But this one just isn’t for me.
5 out of 10