Now at the height of her fame, Del Rey sounds disaffected by the spotlight and isolated from idolization.
Lana Del Ray
Credit: Universal Music

It's the summer of 1968, and a blind homeless man is playing clarinet on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Sixth Street in New York City. He eventually catches the eye of Joni Mitchell, who goes on to memorialize the downtown busker in a song. "I've often ridden past him and wondered about his life, and I've written this for him," she tells a crowd at the 1970 Newport Folk Festival. "It's called, 'The Boy Who Plays for Free.'" 

The title is later shortened to "For Free" and appears on Mitchell's album Ladies Of The Canyon. "Now me I play for fortunes, and those velvet curtain calls," she sings. "But the one-man band, by the quick lunch stand, he was playing real good for free." The pain contained within the words "for free" rings out long after the song fades.

Nearly 50 years later, Lana Del Rey covers Mitchell's track at the Hollywood Bowl, alongside singers Zella Day and Weyes Blood; they eventually record their own studio version for Del Rey's seventh album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club. "For Free" not only closes the record but provides its central conceit: Now at the height of her fame, Del Rey is disaffected by the spotlight, isolated from her idolization, and rich from her art.

Lana Del Rey has never been subtle in her attempts to self-canonize herself into the tradition of 1970s and 1970s-inspired singer-songwriters — nor in occupying a distinct territory outside of mass culture, while still profiting from it. ("I've got feathers in my hair/I get down to beat poetry," she sang in 2014's "Brooklyn Baby," making fun of her own ambitions.) Like Dylan, Cohen, Nyro, Taylor, and Mitchell before her, Del Rey has struggled to negotiate the knotty relationship between celebrity and auteur; commerce and art. (She exhibited just that in the histrionic rollout to Chemtrails, what with her tendentious "questions for the culture" and general self-defensiveness.) Not since the invention of the phonograph, when music became a commercial commodity, have musicians truly been able to make music "for free." But on Chemtrails Over the Country Club, Del Rey yearns for the closest thing: her pre-icon days, when, like a child, she would write music just for the sheer love and hell of it.

For that reason, Chemtrails marks a turning point. No longer scaffolded by the sun-haze sound of L.A., Del Rey has taken her musical references down South, as she introduces a surprising mix of blues, country, and folk to her palette. And while it wouldn't be a Lana Del Rey album without some upcycled hip-hop, you won't hear computer-programmed beats or string sections this time around. The instrumentation is almost entirely acoustic, save for the deliberately jarring autotune on "Tulsa Jesus Blues," which seems to have gone through its own process of naturalization, as though Del Rey were singing through a kazoo. 

On opener "White Dress," Del Rey uses her highest, headiest voice, stretched out like putty, to remember "a simpler time," when she worked as a waitress during the male-dominated early aughts rock scene. The song is also a masterclass in pathos, as well as the album's first paean to the South, as she remembers when she "wasn't famous, just listening to Kings of Leon to the beat." She's in on her own joke, of course: Del Rey has a peerless command over her own absurdity and foolhardiness. In these moments, she packs as many syllables as she can into each line like she's squeezing a snake into a tube. "Down at the men in music business conference," she sings in almost a scat.

Unfortunately, the same level of command isn't spread consistently across the rest of the album. True to its title, "Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost" is essentially "Ride" in fridge magnet form. And there are several instances of lyrics falling flat. "I smoke cigarettes just to understand the smog," she sings on "Wild At Heart," sounding as though she's spent lockdown reading John Green novels. Where she might have previously delivered these Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul sentiments with a kitschy knowingness, on Chemtrails she trades humor for sincerity.

It's to be expected from an album which sees its singer going through the painful process of experimentation and renewal. That might be why the blues — a genre which has long helped white urbanites like Jack White and Amy Winehouse imagine and materialize new selves — is a louder influence on the album's second half. Del Rey tinkers with some bluesy inflections on "Wild At Heart," ending her sentences in whiskey-drowsed grunts, while on "Dance Till We Die," she calls on Creole influences and hot rhythms to remind listeners she's now friends with her idols. "I'm dancing with Joan [Baez]/Stevie [Nicks] is calling on the telephone/Court [ney Love] almost burned down my house," she sings, as though she's saying: If these people admire me, then so should you.

Throughout her career, Del Rey has presented a compelling alternative to female pop stars' forced dynamism and narratives of empowerment. Her music tends to skid rather than soar, as she sings over and over about her desire to trap brief cracks of love and light into amber. It's a desire best expressed on "Yosemite," a highlight of the album's second half. "Seasons will turn/The world it will turn/The only thing we'll turn is the pages of all the poems we burned," she sings over an unvarying guitar line. She stretches each word for as long as her breath will hold, as though she fears the death of each syllable.

Alongside the cover of "For Free," Chemtrails' central song is the Cat Power-core "Dark But Just A Game." A meditation on "the price of fame" and Del Rey's promise to remain unchanged by it, the track provides the clearest indication of where she's headed next. Chemtrails is less a full transformation than the first step forward in another direction. Ultimately, the more famous Del Rey becomes, the less she'll seemingly care about fame. The richer she becomes, the less she'll care about riches. The more acclaimed she becomes, the less she'll care about praise. She might not be playing for free, but she's beginning to make choices as though she were. B

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