Following the critical and public acclaim of “Norman Fucking Rockwell!,” Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” is the highly anticipated follow-up that answers the question of whether Del Rey had truly moved into a new musical era, one replete with the critical stature to match her popularity in American music.
The answer to that question, in short, is complicated. “Chemtrails” does not match “Norman” as an album in musical or lyrical sophistication, but still remains one of the strongest records of her career. Del Rey is an ‘aesthetic artist,’ who has completely localized her theme in 1970s California “Americana” imagery that has drawn both praise and criticism. Compared to “Norman,” “Chemtrails” still has all of the same themes but with a geographic shift — while the setting of “Norman” was undoubtedly California, “Chemtrails” moves us to the southern heartland of Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. These songs don’t come together in as neat and detailed a narrative arc as they did in “Norman,” but instead offer the cinematic experience of a dusty ‘70s heartland, with some love songs, some sad songs, a sex song and a wanderlust song.
Some tracks are sincere, but more importantly for Del Rey, they are pretty, undoubtedly a contribution from producer Jack Antonoff. In fact, the vocal mix is breathtaking at times, which enhances weaker songs whose compositions are a bit overwrought or sleepy (“Yosemite,” “Breaking up Slowly”), or whose lyrics lean to corny (“Wild At Heart,” “Not All Who Wander”). Yet, the album does hold some stand-out tracks. The crown jewel of the album, the stunning “White Dress,” is followed by the ethereal “Chemtrails Over the Club” and the sexier “Tulsa Jesus Freak” (a personal favorite). Less than perfect, but still solid, tracks include: “Wild at Heart,” “Dark But Just A Game” and the Joni Mitchell cover of “For Free.”
At length, part of the joy of “Chemtrails” is also its fundamental weakness: less than a story, it is more of another open aesthetic for listeners to interact with as they choose. Regardless of your past experience with Del Rey, I would still recommend a listen.