Lana Del Rey’s obsessive new LP, “the ninth studio album,” as its cover describes it in a self-mythosifying graphic design, is where this great American collage artist begins to cut and paste.
Known since it emerged more than a decade ago for alluding to or borrowing the music of Lou Reed, Nancy Sinatra, Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys, among many others, Del Rey here quotes a line from her own song “Cinnamon Girl” and repurposes a string arrangement of his “Norman F-ing Rockwell” before concluding the record with a luscious and creepy dub-trap remake of 2019’s “Venice Bitch,” rhyming “Get high” with “Never die” and “Drop acid” with “Lake Placid”.
And why not? At 37, Del Rey has risen to a level of prestige that for his younger heirs, including celebrity fans like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, more or less matches the esteem they hold in his pantheon; plus, she’s almost equally revered by musicians from the generation before her own: Stevie Nicks, who appeared on Del Rey’s “Lust for Life” in 2017; Cat Power, who made a “white Mustang” version of her; and Courtney Love, who recently told Marc Maron that Del Rey and Kurt Cobain are “the only two true musical geniuses I’ve ever met.”
Consider that as the new album arrives, called “Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd,” in reference to a forgotten underground passageway in Long Beach, Del Rey’s 2012 major-label debut, “Born to Die “. is in its 475th week on the Billboard 200, an indication of a cultural resistance few imagined when that album inspired skeptical views of Del Rey’s artistic authenticity.
And yet the self-canonization he undertakes on “Ocean Blvd” isn’t simply a flex (although it does tell him a bit about those old criticisms, like when he sarcastically sings about “great men behind the scenes sewing black Frankenstein dreams.” in my songs.”) Rather, her invocation of Lana’s past is a way of framing a work of determined introspection in which she takes stock of the social and emotional forces that shaped her ideas about family, marriage, art, motherhood, sex, celebrity and death: “things that’s at the very heart of things”, as he puts it in “Sweet”.
In fact, the scope of her examination is so broad that her tally of nine studio LPs includes a little-heard 2010 independent project, released under the name Lana Del Ray (note the slightly different spelling); Opening of “Ocean Blvd”, “the subsidies”, points even further back, to her upbringing in Lake Placid, New York, as Elizabeth Grant.
“My pastor told me that when you leave, all you take with you is your memory,” she sings, haunted but happy, over ecclesiastical piano chords, “And I’ll take mine with me.”
Del Rey isn’t the only A-list pop star to engage in this kind of personal history. “Endless Summer Vacation,” by another fan, Miley Cyrus, has a similar energy to my back pages, while Taylor Swift, who recruited Del Rey for a cameo in “Midnights” last year and with whom she shares a key studio collaborator on Jack Antonoff, has just launched a hugely successful stadium tour built to showcase a succession of former selves.
But Del Rey’s thought, and by extension his composition, is the deepest and most penetrating. In “The Grants,” she reflects on the comforts and obligations of being a daughter and sister; “fingertipsrecalls the tragic death of an uncle and a high school crush and explores the singer’s troubled relationship with her mother. Del Rey reflects on romance in “let the light in”, a country duet with father John Misty, and the sweetheart “Margaret”, who wrote about Antonoff’s engagement to actress Margaret Qualley.
“A&W,” whose title is shortened to “American slut,” though knowingly evoking the nostalgic fast-food chain, takes up Del Rey’s complicated portrayal of gender with startling candor: “If I told you I was raped, do you really think anyone would? ? Do you think I didn’t ask you?
Line for line, his lyrics offer an astonishing mix of the profound and the vernacular, as in “candy necklace”, where she is “sitting on the couch, super suicidal / I hate to say the word, but, honey, keep the bible in mind, I do”. Savor the intricate rhythms of those words! And she beholds her skill as a sentence maker: “You’re so funny, I wish I could dive naked inside your mind,” she tells someone in “Fish tail”; “I am a different woman,” she declares in “Sweet”, “If you want a basic bitch, go to the Beverly Center and find her”.
At 77 minutes long, “Ocean Blvd” risks tiring the listener’s ear, which is why Del Rey and her co-producers Antonoff along with Drew Erickson, Zach Dawes and Mike Hermosa continue to incorporate unexpected sounds and textures into the album piano. arrangements based on “The Grants” have lush gospel choruses; “Fishtail” has twisted synths reminiscent of those in Swift’s “Midnights”; “Peppers” and “Taco Truck x VB” have the kind of blurry hip-hop grooves that Del Rey steered clear of on the folkier albums that followed “Lust for Life.”
But even in its stripped down version, as in “Fingertips” and the desperately pretty “Paris, TexasDel Rey’s richly expressive singing grabs your attention in part because you’re never sure where her slowly unwinding melodies will go. In a recent talk with Eilish in Interview magazine, Del Rey described her approach on “Ocean Blvd” as “straight vibes,” and the result may remind you of the way SZA illuminates a mysterious inner world in “SOS.”
Del Rey’s inward focus doesn’t mean she’s stopped using her music to map the dense web of connections that is life in the digital age. These songs are packed with samples, hints, and acknowledgments: On “Peppers,” she and her boyfriend listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers and dance to the surf-rock classic “Wipe Out,” while “kintsugi” nods to Leonard Cohen’s famous phrase about light coming through a crack in everything.
Del Rey herself doesn’t even sing on “Judah Smith Interlude”, a four and a half minute excerpt from a controversial pastor sermon to the stars that also counts Justin Bieber among his flock. However, from the way Del Rey presents it, as an apparent voice recording captured on his phone, we don’t hear Smith in the pulpit but from what sounds like a pew in his megachurch; she shifts in her seat, murmurs her assent, laughs now and then, whether Smith is joking or not. He has her microphone, but her timing is hers.