Chemtrails Over the Country Club

On sadness and wildness in Lana Del Rey’s new record

“I’m not unhinged or unhappy,” Lana Del Rey tells us on the title track from her new album Chemtrails Over the Country Club. “I’m just wild.” Now spanning seven albums (more if you include her spoken word poetry record), Del Rey’s oeuvre seeks to reawaken the promise of freedom offered by Fordist-era counterculture. James Dean ripping up the open road on a motorbike, Beat poets in dive bars, Jim Morrison’s psychedelic ramblings, Stevie Nicks shucking coke and shaking a tambourine. Wildness is an idea the all-American singer has returned to again and again in her work and her new album, out today, doubles down on this core theme. 

Del Rey was born in 1985, a year into Reagan’s second term, just as the Fordist era gave way to what we might call the ‘neoliberal’ era. She is too young to remember the counterculture she references in her work, but seizes upon its relics, patching together her distinctive sound and aesthetic sensibility from diverse musical and cultural references that she aestheticises to the point of rendering them kitsch (if they weren’t already): Nancy Sinatra, David Lynch, outlaw films, trash culture, folk singers, Old Hollywood, A Clockwork Orange, pulp fiction, old photographs of forgotten beauty queens. She digs for a glimmer of wildness, of freedom, of reckless abandon, of no-work, roaming landscapes, living free. She employs the well-worn mythology of the open road, of bikers and bedsits, a life dropped out of managerial class normativity. Her music is nostalgic, romantic and yearning for the freedom of a bygone era, for grainy analogue photographs over TikTok, for long car rides and small-town rodeos, a world where Drag Racing is still a motorsport, and not a queer TV phenomenon.

What about “unhappy and unhinged”, though? For long-term Lana fans, they're a key part of the appeal. Her music has been described as “Hollywood sadcore”, and her ongoing exploration of female sadness and despondency is what has earned her a fierce following, as well as a fierce opposition. From the beginning, her records have been denounced as anti-feminist for rejecting the 2010s’ dominant narrative of female empowerment. She’s been accused of upholding male power and glamorising female subjugation. Not only is it pretty dumb to condemn a pop singer on such moral grounds, I think her exploration of female fragility and submission is probably misunderstood anyway. If Del Rey gives voice to female subjugation, perhaps something can be said for capturing the reality of that subjugation instead of giving empty proclamations of liberation a la Girlboss feminism.

Highlighting the performative flair of femininity, Del Rey’s music is a celebration of femme identity, of bottoms and subs. It’s Andrea Long Chu’s assertion that “everyone is female and everyone hates it”. It’s music for the ‘other woman’, the gumar who sits around waiting for her man, chainsmoking and painting her nails because she has nothing else to do. It’s music for sad women who love bad men, who subjugate their needs to male desire and get nothing in return. It’s for the Adriana La Cervas of the world.

Researching this article, I came across not one but two articles written by lesbian women commending Del Rey’s exploration of heterosexual desire. “Lana leans into her straightness so hard that she drips with raw heterosexuality”, argues Samantha Allen for The Daily Beast. “Lana’s lyrics capture all the little details, both material and immaterial, that make straightness so alluring: cars and jewels, power and pleasure, strong hands and slinky dresses.” Unlike most mainstream pop stars who are only presumed to be straight, Allen argues, Lana’s straightness is rendered with such detail and explicitness that it “is almost too straight to be heteronormative. She’s aggressively straight, tragically straight, sometimes even comically so.”

Del Rey’s pining for and dependency on men is camp in the same way that, say, Eartha Kitt’s ‘Where Is My Man?’ is camp. But the intense theatricality and death-wish melodrama that defined her early career (and spawned so much criticism), the unhappiness and unhinged-ness, is more muted on this record. Over the years, her songwriting has matured into something less bombastic but more structurally complex and lyrically skilled. In some ways, I miss the ridiculous theatrics. What we’re left with, though, is a solid country/folk-influenced record filled with soft piano, trip-hop beats and layered vocals. Listen closely and you'll still get that female yearning, but it's rooted more in nostalgia and a longing for the past than longing for a man.

In ‘White Dress’, the opening track, Del Rey recalls her waitressing days in the mid-2000s. She nostalgically conjures wearing a tight dress in the heat, serving at a Men in Music Business Conference, how it made her “feel seen” and “feel free”. There’s a hint, here, of a rejection of #metoo-era puritanism and a relishing of more ‘trad’ gender politics, one which gleans erotic charge from exchanges of power, but this is only hinted at, left to simmer away in the background. The track’s gauzy layered vocals, breaking into an almost whispered falsetto at the chorus, are some of the most compelling on the album. They give voice to a feeling of intense longing – for the innocence of youth, for not being famous, for 2005, for being “only 19”, for lying on the lawn and listening to White Stripes records.

Longing for the past is, at its heart, a conservative impulse – as are the country clubs and chemtrail theories referenced in the title of this new record. Del Rey’s geography has shifted, here, from her usual LA-noir to America’s heartland: swing states and small-town America. From ‘White Dress’ and its waitressing “down in Orlando”, we skate around Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma (one track is called ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’). ‘Breaking Up Slowly’, a duet with country singer Nikki Lane, has a distinctly Texan feel, looking at the relationship between ‘Stand By Your Man’ singer Tammy Wynette and her abusive husband George Jones. Traversing the more conservative regions of America – in an era where political and geographical divides have never been more polarised – feels like a distinctly Lana Del Rey thing to do, a contrarian rebuffal of the liberal media consensus. 

But like I say, making such moral arguments about pop singers is dumb. Regardless of the geography or political underpinnings of this album, it’s an enchanting record, one that eschews pop bangers for more understated melodic arrangements, for sliding fingers on guitar strings, click tracks and softly shaking tambourines. The self-erasing love songs and odes to coke-dealing Daddies of yore give way to softness, delicacy and intimacy, to “loving like a woman” and being “wild at heart”.

- Rosa xo

Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club was released on 19 March 2021.