Two of America’s best songwriters released new albums during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, a staggering deep-dive into the cynicism and sicknesses of American society in the twentieth century that continue to saturate the present day. Dylan wove his own search for identity and himself into these new songs, playing on his iconic image and his own enormous place in modern history. The second record is Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Over eleven new songs and one cover, Del Rey presents a starkly different image of America and what it means to exist, navigate, and create in these difficult and confusing times.
What does it mean for one of the biggest artists in the world to release an album during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic without making reference or allusion to the crisis? Is there meaning in the absence of social commentary? Lana Del Rey’s music has managed to be largely apolitical even as her own personal statements on feminism, politics, and American culture are the subject of criticism. Del Rey’s response to her times and her own disquieting personal fame has looked more like retreat into solitude and an abstract fascination with Americana, American mythology, and the past. This is not so different from Dylan’s musical politics, particularly in recent decades and in his newest material where he refrains from commentary on the events of 2021 but dives into the mid-twentieth century and his making as an American artist. Del Rey doesn’t have fifty-years of firsthand observation like Dylan, but she still frames her writing through a similar lens. The result is an album which is at different turns evocative, painful, and beautifully wistful. It confirms that Del Rey is a songwriter of immense talent and range, which she pairs with her ongoing command of pop sonic landscapes.
Del Rey rose to fame on the strength of the 2012 album Born to Die that paired a bombastic sad sound with an image soaked in glamour, nostalgia, danger. Though it was a fabrication, Del Rey’s cinematic image and sound became so intertwined that her origins and true identity faded before the powerful image she created. That she was denied by critics as a fabrication belied an unwillingness to acknowledge that other American musical figures, including Bob Dylan, were given license to leave behind mundane origins while the public accepted more romantic images of their past. This trajectory is explored in different ways on the new record as Del Rey writes about time and memory.
Lana Del Rey’s music has often existed with one foot in the past. From the reverb-drenched 50s and 60s girl group sound of her first records that invoked Mary Weiss and the Shangri-Las and the jazz-influenced dreamscapes of Honeymoon, on her more recent albums Del Rey has been making a slow retreat from pop music and moving towards a confrontation with Americana and traditionalism. She moves further on Chemtrails, a muted and stripped-down journey across the American landscape juxtaposed with Del Rey’s own changing and contested image as an artist. Other artists are engaging with the same terrain, notably Taylor Swift on two new records released in 2020 that also bring themes of Americana to pop music. But whereas Swift’s music is resoundingly contemporary, Del Rey continues to reach back—forging a sound that lives in memory and history. Like Dylan, Del Rey is searching for a sound that doesn’t exactly exist anymore and trying to use it to look forward.
“White Dress” opens the album and sets the tone for the aching reminiscence that surfaces throughout. Del Rey writes about being 19 years old, working as a waitress, and the years before she found fame. Del Rey connects her own memories of the period to an era of American cultural splendour, years when “the White Stripes were white hot” and she “felt like a God” from the power of her own youth. She sings these passages in a breathless soprano that is an entirely new vocalization for her, using her upper register to invoke the dream-like memory of that time. It’s possible that these days as a waitress never existed the way she remembers them here, but this is the enduring lure of Americana and looking back as a salve to the present. Del Rey breaks the spell of “White Dress’ with the lines “the Summer’s summer’s almost gone / We were talking ‘bout life / We were sitting outside till dawn / But I would still go back / If I could do it all again, I thought” and then “makes me feel like maybe I was better off.” Brian Wilson wrote very similar lines at the end of the final Beach Boys album as he contemplated coming to the end of his journey and looking back. This yearning for more innocent days also connects to the ethos of a lost America.
Time and the past have been persistent themes in Del Rey’s music. On her third album, Honeymoon, she included a reading from “Burnt Norton” by T.S. Elliot, including his meditation on staying in the present moment: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.” The poem discusses the idea of time and the concept that only the present moment really matters because the past cannot be changed, and the future is unknown. The idea has fascinated Del Rey and appears throughout her music and again on Chemtrails. But she also betrays this mantra of contentedness by continually looking back. Nostalgia continues to drive the songs on Chemtrails Over the Country Club. So much like Dylan’s entire career, Del Rey searches the past to understand her alienation from the present. As she confronts this, she often intertwines her vision of Americana with her own highly constructed and contested personal mythology.
A sort of lonely dislocation characterizes the rest of the record which serves as a travelogue of Del Rey’s survey of the American landscape. From the east coast decadence of Del Rey’s youth to the American midwest where she has always found inspiration. Arkansas, Tulsa, Minneapolis, and Yosemite are all visited as starkly different landscapes from the country club where the album begins. This travel pairs Del Rey’s search for American identity with the Beat Generation and the same decadence of youth that she venerates in the opening track. On “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” Del Rey sings about the wanderlust that characterized the Beat poets, but maybe there’s something else she’s reaching for that responds to the road landscapes of middle America. The surrounding lines in the Tolkien poem the song title is drawn from undoubtedly speak to something else: “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” The sentiment doesn’t suggest her transience. Is Del Rey is reaching for permanence? Can she find it and remain Lana Del Rey?
These combined songs contribute to the feeling that Del Rey is retreating from something—from herself, from fame, and maybe from the America that the album traverses. Her traveling commentary finally arrives in California where she seeks refuge. This is a journey that so many other artists undertook as they achieved fame and success and retreated to the west coast, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. On Chemtrails Over the Country Club Lana Del Rey ultimately finds her experience mirrored not in Dylan’s but with Mitchell who she idolizes here with repeated references to her presence in the Laurel Canyon and a cover of a track from Mitchell’s 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. “For Free” is about Mitchell’s reaction to an unknown musician on the streets of New York contrasted with her own sudden fame. The cover captures the feeling of Del Rey’s struggle with fame, integrity and artistry. She performs it as a duet with two other singers, Zella Day and Weyes Blood, and sings only on the middle verse about velvet curtain calls and limousines—the trappings of her success and the markers of her own loosening grip on what constitutes art verses fame.
As a whole Chemtrails Over the Country Club seeks the same thing as the Beat poets and folk icons of the 1960s that Del Rey venerates in her work. Seeking authenticity and connection, she looks out over the American landscape to discover that both exist only in memories and myths.
Ted McCoy is a historian and an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Calgary. He is on Twitter at @tedmccoy.