With its stirring melodies, vivid narratives, and sharp observations about modern American life, Lana Del Rey’s 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell was the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of singular slow-burn pop for the singer, and still the best demonstration of her considerable talents. Del Rey’s follow-up, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, is stylistically a continuation of its predecessor’s ballad-focused tract, but it doesn’t cut quite as deep. Encircling themes of memory, place, and fame, the album is a compelling, if minor, chapter in the artist’s ongoing saga of fatalistic romanticism.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club leans into the many Joni Mitchell comparisons that were prompted by Norman Fucking Rockwell. On the opening track, “White Dress,” she evokes the folk legend when she slips as many syllables as she can into lines like “down at the men in music business conference,” and she teases that she’s “covering Joni” on “Dance Till We Die” before doing just that with the closing cover of Mitchell’s “For Free.” Inviting such direct comparisons to Mitchell is both gutsy and, though Del Rey is in good vocal form here, perhaps a bit futile. When she cedes the final verse of “For Free” to guest vocalist Weyes Blood, who sounds uncannily like Mitchell, it comes off as a bit of a surrender.
Still, the way Del Rey connects different tracks to one another, even across different albums (like Lust for Life’s “Cherry” and Norman Fucking Rockwell’s “Venice Bitch”), is peerless—perhaps rivaled only by Taylor Swift—and partly what makes her music so enveloping. On Chemtrails Over the Country Club, Del Rey delights in dropping breadcrumbs: Her discussions of jewels on the title track links with mentions of the same on “For Free,” and she sings fondly of her ranch near Coldwater Canyon, which “sometimes…feels like [her] only friend,” on “Tulsa Jesus Freak” and “Dance Till We Die.” These thoughtfully connected threads make the album feel as if it’s in dialogue with itself and the rest of Del Rey’s catalog. And while it doesn’t engage with our current moment or hot-button issues as urgently as Norman Fucking Rockwell does, it’s also part of a larger pop-cultural conversation—or at least, it has some hilarious and apt references to astrology, Kings of Leon, and How Green Was My Valley.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club is, instead, primarily concerned with seemingly personal reflections and inner conflicts, foremost among them being the push and pull between living in Los Angeles and the Midwest or rural America more generally. Del Rey has been singing about leaving L.A. for a few years now, and she brings a longing for a less media-saturated existence to the fore on songs like “Let Me Love You Like a Woman”: “I come from a small town, how about you?/I only mention it ‘cause I’m ready to leave L.A. and I want you to come.” Conflating a romance with her relationship to California on “Wild at Heart,” she confesses, “Time after time, I think about leaving/But you know that I never do, just ‘cause you keep me believing.” Shrewdly, she complicates this longing, couching it in nostalgic remembrances so as to signal that returning to a simpler life is untenable.
Throughout the album, Del Rey flexes the highest registers of her airy falsetto, and her voice is frequently multi-tracked as a one-woman choir, put to fabulous effect on tracks like “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” There are also more head-scratching vocal touches here than on her previous work, like the brief but inexplicable use of Auto-Tune on “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” a choice that feels especially out of place on an album that generally finds Del Rey forgoing some of her usual vocal acrobatics and tics (such as upping the note that she’s currently singing by several octaves), instead adhering to a more restrained chamber-pop delivery.
Working again in close collaboration with composer and producer Jack Antonoff, the album is gorgeously, if a bit too tastefully, arranged, prizing pared-back piano and light-handed acoustic guitar. The songs are marked by their distinct transitions, as in the way the string section quakes between the chorus and verse on “Dark But Just a Game,” or how the bridge suddenly takes on a jaunty, ‘70s-rock flavor on “Dance Till We Die.” The percussion, often a clear indication of the stylistic direction of any given Del Rey album, is subtle and varied throughout Chemtrails Over the Country Club. It communicates a little of everything—with hand-drumming on “Yosemite,” pattering drum machine on “Dark But Just a Game,” and loose, cymbal-heavy jazz drumming on “White Dress” and the title track—but pointing toward jazz and country more than ever before.
And yet, many of the album’s songs are missing the multi-faceted qualities of Del Rey’s best projects. What you might expect from reading the track titles is essentially what you’re going to get: This is her most thematically one-note album since 2012’s Born to Die. Such simplicity, of course, is always going to be performed with Del Rey’s signature blend of irony and sincerity. Her winking emotionalism is so self-aware that it achieves an earnest purity.