Lana Del Rey, a name so often recognized as the staple of West Coast melancholia, steps away from the glamorous gloom of California’s urban centers for a whole new geography on her latest record Chemtrails Over the Country Club. On this, her seventh studio album, Del Rey distances herself from the tropes and themes that saw her rise to stardom back in 2012 and embarks on a more toned-down journey through the American heartland.
If her five previous studio releases were the bustling downtown streets of Los Angeles, Chemtrails is the seldom-taken highway bleeding out of the suburbs. This is, in essence, a transitional work that embodies and memorializes the great exit from California — one that ultimately drives Del Rey to explore themes contradictory to all of her previous work in ways unprecedented in her sonic macrocosm. This is sold, however, in the same soft and dreamy packaging that has become a staple for Del Rey, complicating this journey that could be thought of as a change in artistic direction but may just be a simple detour.
In this way, Chemtrails Over the Country Club is often sonically predictable, laid with the same foundation as her previous album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! However, this is offset by a marked shift in tone and theme, exploring the pitfalls of fame and the escapism that led Del Rey out of her metaphorical homeland. Despite its ideological discoveries, Chemtrails never loses the charm and intrigue that surround her, keeping audiences in her grasp by focusing on the crux of her talent and persona.
The record’s opening track, “White Dress,” is a jarring entrance into the world Del Rey crafts, establishing the qualms associated with her stardom that are later expanded upon. This track cleverly contemplates the role of misogyny in female success, introducing the “Men in Music Business Conference” as a patriarchal body representative of the industry she works in. The track goes on to quantify her naiveté — “I was only 19” — along with her sexualization as a female service worker: “When I was a waitress wearing a tight dress.”
The story told here exemplifies key aspects of fame in Del Rey’s eyes, namely the bonds that seem to restrict, control and villainize. On “Wild at Heart,” she envisions a world in which the refusal of fame is a possibility, seemingly awakening to the damage it may sow in people’s lives. Where her previous works appear to have had a confident grasp on the effect fame has on her life, Chemtrails sees Del Rey present herself as much more vulnerable to its effects. This layer of honesty is refreshing compared to her often fantastical, lyrical archive, gifting the record an overall grounded quality.
This honest sentiment contributes to the folky nature of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, which often tells stories from perspectives outside of Del Rey’s while always remaining relevant to her feelings and message. The production uplifts this mode of storytelling, adopting traditional instrumentation in place of the usual electric guitar and piano melodies. Together, these defining characteristics culminate in a work that is both reflective and reflexive; it looks back on the mental toll of an artist’s career, yet still falls victim to the linearity of Del Rey’s musical craft. What could have been an ideological escape from her past in both message and form becomes simply the former and only a dream of the latter, always leaving the door open for an inevitable return.
What Chemtrails lacks in experimentation, however, it makes up for in spirit and plight. One can only appreciate Del Rey’s boldness for leaving behind the themes that defined her career and doing so in a manner that remains uniquely her own. In the same way that it demands Del Rey to reflect on her status, the record demands its listener to reflect as well — to contemplate the chemtrails left in our wake and how we deal with what we’ve left behind.