When Lana Del Rey admitted to a reporter in 2014 that she hoped she was dead, the statement was mentioned in almost every piece about her for what felt like years. The vocalist was still depressed at the time about the negative reviews her debut album had received. Perhaps she was selling the underlying fatalism while debunking claims that her gritty Born to Die persona was made up.
She most likely harbored the kind of artistic drive that yearned for affiliation with sad geniuses like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Since then, Lana has experienced many days, and it appears that some of them were good. The notoriety for her songs came eventually, especially after the publication of her 2019 national pulse check Norman Fucking Rockwell! She always knew it was due.
This month, Lana talked with Rolling Stone about experiencing a significant release in her psychic realm. She continues to sing and speak about dying. Now, though, it serves as a framing mechanism through which to see her existence rather than an escape route. With the help of John Denver’s feeling of mystical wonder, the opening track from her ninth studio album, “The Grants,” treks to the alpine metaphorical hilltop in order to receive guidance from above.
The chorus, which is resolute like a hymn and is surrounded by gospel backup singers and orchestral ribbons, begins, “My pastor told me when you leave all you take is your memory, and I’m going to take mine of you with me.” The writer’s job is to transform life’s raw stuff into something meaningful and worthwhile. Lana eagerly embraces its meaning, despite the fact that occasionally she is the only one who can understand it.
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The sprawling, perplexing work-in-progress Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd debuts. From the choir rehearsal that interrupts it in the first few seconds to the sound of the piano’s sustain pedal releasing at the end, it is full of introspective silence and loud interruptions, apparent seams, and unhemmed edges.
Both virtue and burden for Lana, beauty fades or is lost, like the tunnel in the title, its mosaic ceilings, and painted tiles sealed and forgotten. The things “at the very center of things”—family, love, healing, art, legacy, wisdom—along with all the paradoxes and confusion that accompany the pursuit—are what Lana is pursuing here.
Many of the concepts that stand out here were first introduced on Lana’s album from 2021, Blue Banisters: revisiting old material with new relish; letting go of pop’s traditional structures and polish; and writing about loved ones with tender specificity. With a song bearing her family name as its opening track, Lana, once known as Elizabeth Grant, keeps her father, brother, and sister near Ocean Blvd as if bracing for a loss.
In one song, she breathes out a prayer between jazzy squiggles, pleading with her father’s marine fanatic grandfather to watch after him while he’s deep-sea fishing. She implores Charlie, her brother, to give up smoking. In “The Grants” and “Sweet,” a traditional wife fantasy wrapped in a mid-century movie-musical score, the subject of having children—her sister’s daughter and Lana’s prospective offspring—comes up again. With a devastating admission of self-doubt, “Fingertips” introduces the subject of motherhood: “Will the baby be all right/Will I have one of my own?/Can I handle it even if I do.”
But, this feels more intimate. Such a sentiment could easily be expanded into a remark about millennial discomfort. It shows Lana, a self-made poster child for helpless womanhood who describes herself as “a modern lady with a weak constitution,” at her most unguarded. Even in its finished form, the content sounds like it’s meant exclusively for her ears, according to the producer Drew Erickson, who admitted she was hesitant to submit early draughts.
“Fingertips” doesn’t appear interested in keeping our attention with its solemn quiet, precisely produced yet opaque details, and lack of organizing logic. Only the strings and Wurlitzer are picking up Lana’s trail as she walks the foggy woodland of her own recollection; there is no rhythm or organization.
Lana throws rocks into these still waters in other places, most notably on “A&W.” She writes from the perspective of the other woman, a recurring character in her discography who, in this case, represents the rage that unconventional women elicit. Lana, who is still single and childless at the age of 37 and is the target of intense physical inspection, remarks, “Did you realize that a singer may still be looking like a side piece at 33?
” The title is an “American Whore” substitute that is suitable for printing, and Lana alternates between her several personas as a victim with flaws (“Do you really think that anyone would think that I didn’t beg for it?”). She then becomes an altogether another persona: a girlish brat complaining to someone’s mom, following a drastic about-face that transforms the song from voice-memo balladry into boom-bap playground rap.
Lana portrays characters that highlight how little girl bossing has done to address systemic hostility towards women as a critic of empowerment feminism, although a clumsy one. In a post-Roe environment, they represent an enduring taxonomy that has been solidified: We are prostitutes who deserve what we receive, or else children who need to be protected from our own actions.
What’s the next step for us? to church, it seems. The Beverly Hills preacher and influencer Judah Smith, who includes the Biebers (as well as Lana) among his congregation, gives Lana a lecture about lust after “A&W.” With the exception of the occasional laugh or affirmation—possibly from Lana herself—the four and a half minute homily is provided with no commentary; given its placement, the music seems intended more to incite than to educate.
Yet at the very end, Smith says something intriguing: “I used to think my preaching was largely about you. I’ve realized, however, that my preaching is mostly about myself.” More than ever, Lana’s sermons center mostly on her, displaying a growing propensity to mythologize oneself. With lines like “Some huge man behind the scenes/Sewing Frankenstein black dreams into my song,” she sings directly about becoming Lana Del Rey in Ocean Blvd, alluding to the claims of industry-planting that occurred around the time of her debut.
Her gazing backward also lands on hip-hop, which has long been a part of her work but was greatly toned down following 2017’s Lust for Life. At least during the latter several minutes of the song, as Lana engages in some of her most blatant provocations, the trap beats are back. Her lyrics make light of offenses that have previously gotten her into trouble, both within and outside of the music industry: brownface and casual Covid noncompliance.
There is a sense of doubling down and insisting that she must build her own way. Lana pushes past the criticism on “Taco Truck x VB,” the chimera closer that is half a trap remix of Norman Fucking Rockwell’s “Venice !’s Bitch.” “Before you talk let me stop what you say/I know, I know, I know that you hate me,” she sings. She is more refreshed but not in fucks.
Postmodern collage artist Lana keeps a running list of her sources. Consider the four-minute song “Peppers,” which in addition to referencing the Red Hot Chili Peppers and sampling Tommy Genesis’ vulgar 2015 song “Angelina,” also incorporates a surf-rock classic. At her best, Lana purposefully reinterprets the work of others, reworking its meaning through a unique lens.
Beyond the “Venice Bitch” remake, there is a snippet of “Cinnamon Girl” in the Jon Batiste film “Candy Necklace,” and chopped-up strings from “Norman Fucking Rockwell” appear on “A&W,” suggesting that she is continuing to develop as a musician while also submitting her work, ready for reimagining, for inclusion in the larger American songbook from which she so readily draws.
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One of the most important lessons from Ocean Blvd is that inclusion in this canon does not need perfection. The title track devotes some of its time to glorifying a wonderful flaw—a particular beat from the Harry Nilsson song “Don’t Forget Me” from 1974.
By giving a timestamp (2:05), Lana identifies the point in the song that the singer-voice songwriter breaks and erupts with raw emotion. This acceptance of imperfection may provide insight into Lana’s mentality and explain some of Ocean Blvd’s excesses and experiments, which nobly pursue profundity but only occasionally succeed. Even so, there are some 2:05s scattered throughout the sprawl.
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