For Lana Del Rey a frock can contain multitudes. On Summertime Sadness, from her debut album, Born to Die, a red dress was a passport to freedom, an escape hatch out of the dreariness of reality. The scarlet gown was back on 2014’s Cruel World, from Ultraviolence, deployed once again as a metaphor for slipping off the shackles and entering a pop fantasia of her own devising.
A dress also features in her new record – but this time the colour has changed, along with the context. “When I was a waitress,” sings Del Rey in an exhaling coo, “wearing a white dress . . .”
White Dress is one of the most diaristic belters Del Rey has yet written, and it is telling that it is the song with which she chooses to open her seventh long play (LP). Authenticity – if it matters, whether pop stars should covet or run from it – is a subject Del Rey has been required to engage with through her career. And it is the topic she grapples with head-on here, deploying her choice of clothing as a metaphor for the innocence and yearning of her prestardom days.
Sadness, in and out of season, is the recurring theme. White Dress sees Del Rey harking back to her years as a striving artist, paying the bills by working as a waitress
With her first hit, Video Games, in 2011, the popular line on Del Rey was that she was David Lynch’s fever dream brought to life. But the idea that she was selling an artificial version of herself – that the artist, born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, was “playing” the role of Lana – chafed from the outset with the singer.
She did not always parse the criticism appropriately, it is true. Whether lashing out at journalists – punching down is always a bad look for musicians – or writing stream-of-consciousness Instagram posts evoking Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B (which drew claims of racism), Del Rey sometimes seemed to have a shaky and slightly desperate grip on her own narrative.
But she is winningly assured on Chemtrails Over the Country Club, a project in dialogue with fame, hate and the confusing state of “Being Lana”. That may make it feel like an exercise in navel-gazing – and to a degree it is. Yet it’s also a low-key masterpiece, less performatively incandescent than 2019’s Norman F**king Rockwell! but, in its own somnolent way, no less irresistible.
Del Rey’s songwriting has always leaned into minor-key ennui. And that is again the case here as she reunites with the Lorde, Taylor Swift and St Vincent collaborator Jack Antonoff and with Rick Nowels, formerly of New Radicals and a co-writer with Del Rey of Summertime Sadness.
Sadness, in and out of season, is the recurring theme. The aforementioned White Dress sees Del Rey harking back to her years as a striving artist, paying the bills by working as a waitress and staking her future on a music conference in Orlando. “I wasn’t famous,” Del Rey coos. “Kinda makes me feel/ Like maybe I was better off.”
Chemtrails demands complete buy-in from the listener. It's self-serious, the pacing never rising beyond creakingly woozy
Elegiac and unfolding in their own good time, the songs that follow live up to Del Rey’s billing of Chemtrails as a “country folk” album. This, though, is a rhapsody with a lot of blue in its soul: the title track, for instance, finds the artist awash in jewellery, hanging out with the 1 per cent even as she discerns, just over the horizon, an oncoming darkness (“Me and my sister just playin’ it cool/ Under the chemtrails over the country club”).
As with all of her work, Chemtrails demands complete buy-in from the listener. It's self-serious, the pacing never rising beyond creakingly woozy. And some of the choices don't quite land. She duels grippingly with the country star Nikki Lane on Breaking Up Slowly.
But on Not All Who Wander Are Lost, Del Rey pinches the chorus from a line of poetry in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (Here's hoping the next Dua Lipa record is inspired by David Eddings's The Belgariad.)
Yet these are ultimately quirks rather than quibbles and don’t detract from the masterfulness of Del Rey’s vision. Now, more than ever, she stands tall as pop’s most singular talent.