Subterranean heartsick blues
Queen of drama’s ninth album digs deep. By Victoria Segal. Lana Del Rey ★★★★ Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd INTERSCOPE. CD/DL/LP
“ASK ME WHY I’m like this,” sings Lana Del Rey on A&W, as if anyone who has come near her music in the past decade needs a prompt.
Since the 2011 release of Video Games, Del Rey has been a one-woman think-piece, making everything about her yet retaining her myster y, the just-out-of-focus centre of attention. Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under
Ocean Blvd offers another chance to discover what lies beneath, a state-of-the-artist address that doubles down on previous preoccupations – bad men, bad drugs, bad choices – but also tries hard to grasp a world that exists beyond a fly-smeared Mustang windscreen or a dirty motel door. It’s beautiful, unveiled, audacious – at times to the point of recklessness – a record that moves outside her habitual emotional twilight to seek a new dawn. It deals with family, grief and (dangerous though it is for a woman like her) hope, finding shades of sadness beyond the traditional and-it-felt-like-a-kiss misery.
If it wasn’t for a couple of unfortunate lulls and longueurs, the odd dubious creative choice, it could easily look Norman Fucking Rockwell in the eye.
One of those blips is an excerpt of a sermon about fidelity by her pastor, controversial Los Angeles superchurch leader Judah Smith; the background laughs and rustles suggest Del Rey was recording from a pew. Yet from gospeltinged opener The Grants, a song that immediately sets up the theme of family by mentioning her sister’s newborn baby and her grandmother’s last smile, it seems Del Rey’s spiritual engagement stems from harsh experience. She sings of bereavement, of deathbed goodbyes, while the piano evokes Kate Bush’s Aerial mourning songs. One song is called Grandfather Please Stand On The Shoulders Of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing, a gauzy hymn yearning for protection, for continuity.
While Kintsugi relies on a slightly overworked metaphor and a nod to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem to explore grief, the remarkable Fingertips triggers a true jolt of sadness as Del Rey addresses her siblings: “Charlie, stop smoking/Caroline will you be with me?/Will the baby be all right?/Will I have one of my own?” There’s a lot going on here, anxieties just pouring from her. She worries about genetics, about the little landmines lurking in DNA; it is so heartfelt, her description of crying in the shower before performing for the Prince of Monaco doesn’t land that awkwardly. “They say there’s irony in the music/It’s a tragedy,” she sings, utterly believably. “I see nothing Greek in it.”
Moments of old-school romance and almost manic levity remain. Let The Light In, a duet with Father John Misty, has an oleaginous vintage charm, all Spanish guitar, candle-waxy keyboard and listening to The Beatles in bed; Peppers, boosted by a fabulous hook from rapper Tommy Genesis, has Del Rey crazy in love: “I take off all my clothes/Dance naked for the neighbours.”
Yet that display isn’t more revealing than Fishtail’s Southern gothic – “you wanted me sadder” – or the astonishing A&W, Del Rey taking herself apart until she’s “invisible, a ghost now”, erased by the rape culture around her. Starting like downbeat Fleetwood Mac, it topples into nightmarish trip-hop, her own dial-spinning I Am The Walrus, ending in a dysfunctional playground chant. As ever with Del Rey, you could lose weeks cross-referencing every allusion – hair-plaiting, Forensic Files, The Roadrunner Café – not least when she closes the record by merging Covid-era romance Taco Truck with 2019’s Venice Bitch. It’s a dangerous game, evoking past glories, but it’s proof she’s on the kind of form that can reckon with her past rather than just being doomed to repeat it. “Maybe I’m just like this,” she says on A&W, answering her own question. She leaves no doubt that might sometimes be a curse, but on this evidence, what a gift, too.