Lana Del Rey has always liked to keep her fans guessing. Even when glimmers of truth about her life have poked through her songs, the New Yorker has made sure to shroud her thoughts in a protective layer of oblique references: is she singing about her own experiences or slipping into a character that’s introspective, slightly tongue-in-cheek, indubitably a little weird? Whatever her method, it has worked: at 37, the enigmatic star is regularly hailed as one of the most important musicians of her generation.
Del Rey’s ninth album is one of her most confounding to date, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd contains some of her most personal songs to date: Fingertips is cumbrous with the weight of a complex family history, its lyrics reading like a journal entry as she refers to her siblings and her fractious relationship with her mother, while also musing on her own future. Following the recent birth of her niece, she ponders, “Will the baby be all right? Will I have one of mine? Can I handle it?” The 1970s balladry of Sweet ruminates on similar topics, as she inquires of a partner “Do you want children, do you wanna marry me?” Kintsugi lays her vulnerabilities bare: “I don’t trust myself with my heart,” she murmurs, “but I’ve had to let it break a little more, cos that’s what they say it’s for.” It’s safe to say that Del Rey’s customary tendency to soul-search has been reinforced.
Yet there are songs here about other people, too. Margaret, a twinkling love ballad with soft flourishes of brass, is about the actor Margaret Qualley and her producer fiance, Jack Antonoff. Father John Misty guests on Let the Light In, a humdrum duet about a destructive affair, while other guests – the jazz/R&B star Jon Batiste, the Canadian musician SYML, the contemporary classical pianist Riopy – keep the track list moderately varied.
Del Rey is still capable of generating her own surprises, too: Taco Truck X VB is essentially an experimental R&B/trap reworking of Venice Beach, a song from her earlier album Norman Fucking Rockwell! That same trap influence can be felt on the album highlight A&W (which samples the title track from NFR!), a skewed, somewhat damning self-examination that veers from eerie, melancholic balladry to a grimy, menacing, syncopated burble over the course of seven trippy minutes.
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As the cumbersome title might suggest, this album is a lot to take in, and with a run time of 77 minutes it is undoubtedly too long. In years to come, however, it may well go down as one of Del Rey’s best records – or at least one of her most honest.