Continuity is undoubtedly the main challenge for every artist: for the public and especially for the artist themselves, it is important for each work to surpass its predecessor. So, when Lana Del Rey released her highly anticipated record “Chemtrails Over the Country Club”, an immediate comparison was made to 2019’s “Norman F*cking Rockwell!” a.k.a. “NFR!”, her most critically acclaimed album to date, pinpointing the weaknesses of the new release compared to its sibling. Therefore, is this judgment fair, and on which criteria can we compare the two projects?
After two promotional singles and overwhelming anticipation, “Chemtrails” was released on the 19th of March 2021. Del Rey’s seventh studio album was nearly all written and produced by herself and Jack Antonoff, renowned producer of her prior project, as well as Rick Nowels, Del Rey’s longtime collaborator, for the track “Yosemite”. This record already sets differences with the artist’s older work, as it better defines the split with the alternative genre that started in “NFR!”, with the eleven tracks fully immersed in elements of americana, country folk, and some indie rock traces.
The lyrical content of the album showcases the heterogeneity between older and newer concepts intertwining. Indeed, Del Rey’s signature concepts are still prominently present, with her obsessive attachment to her love interest in “Let Me Love You Like A Woman”: “Talk to me in songs and poems / don’t make me feel bittersweet”; the tragic melancholia of Hollywood in “Dark But Just A Game”: “The faces aren’t the same, but the stories all end tragically”; and her philosophical questionings on her quest in life in the self-explanatory title “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”, a phrase popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Riddle of Strider”. However, we can see the artist’s evolution and self-progress, as we sense a growth in her words. For instance, Del Rey’s obsession with Hollywood has always been anchored in its dark glamour; but “Dark But Just A Game” showcases the more realistic expectations of the songwriter who is ditching her movie star persona: “the best ones lost their minds / so I’m not [going to] change / I’ll stay the same”.
Production-wise, Jack Antonoff showcases his abilities by adapting to the artist’s style while introducing his usual elements. As revealed by the producer himself, this project is stripped down to its bare melodies and instrumentations, with the prominent use of the piano, the acoustic guitars, and other calm strings. This simple production heavily contrasts with the heavy sounds of “NFR!” whose tracks are formed around complex arrangements and long instrumental breaks (“Venice B*tch”). These instruments reinforce the genre shift, especially with the artist expressing her new interest for country music, embodied in the track “Dance Till We Die” with its groovy folk bridge dominated by acoustic guitar riffs and percussions.
Contrasting with these newer components, I personally see “Chemtrails” dedicated to Del Rey’s family and fans. Indeed, many references made in the tracks would fly over a new listener’s head, while loyal fans reminisced about older projects. For example, “Wild At Heart” samples 2019’s “How to Disappear”, also produced by Antonoff, while “Dark but Just A Game” continues with the artist’s disdain of Hollywood’s glamour: “life is sweet or whatever”, a clear sarcastic shot at her 2012 track “Radio” that glamorized the LA life: “My life is sweet like cinnamon”.
All in all, “Chemtrails” is a beautiful album in its uniqueness and simplicity, as it accentuates the long awaited scissure in the Lana Del Rey narrative, from the genres explored, to her self-growth and change in ideologies. In my opinion, “NFR!” objectively stays the artist’s masterpiece, but “Chemtrails” is nonetheless a strong record that showcases the songwriter’s versatility. As it ends with a reprise of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” with Zella Day’s dreamy vocals and Weyes Blood’s bold voice, the leading collaboration of the album is Nikki Lane’s co-creation of the country anthem “Breaking Up Slowly”. Shortly after the release of this project, Del Rey announced plans to work with Lane on folk tracks, as well as her upcoming record “Rock Candy Sweet”. So, it would be interesting to follow these projects, to better analyze Del Rey’s growth as an artist, but most importantly, as a human being.