by Chase Goldberg Friedman
I know Lana del Rey in her current form first and foremost— as a singer-songwriter, a Tori Amos-like master of old-school instrumentation with a gorgeous voice, one unafraid of simplicity and honest with such poetry it hardly sounds like self-confession. I have viewed her as another voice in my ear; having been introduced to her work by a friend just a year and a half ago, I have enjoyed a unique separation from her presence over time, while being uniquely allowed to form a connection.
Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd? starts with “The Grants,” opening on an error. In the beginning, a slight mistake gives us the intro, going straight into piano, melting into strings, and then exploding in the final chorus with backup singers. “It’s a beautiful life / Remember that too for me.” It’s Lana, god, what else do you want?
The title song is near-perfect, but muddled so much by celebrity producer Jack Antonoff’s annoying trademarks (responsive strings, spaced out non-drum beats, faint, flavorless piano) that so many of its most interesting elements, (the piano, the electric guitar, the backup singers) are barely audible. Has there ever been a more obnoxious string section? Yet, even through this screen of auditory bloatware, this is such a brilliant tune: in the beginning, Del Rey’s deep breath easing us into the tune, the repeated refrain of “don’t forget me,” lines like “fuck me to death / love me until I love myself,” the way the verses build, it’s brilliant, all of it, and so sickeningly overproduced. But Antonoff co-wrote “White Dress,” so I can’t hate him.
Del Rey fares much better on the next song, “Sweet,” a quiet and deeply emotional piano ballad that’s unexpectedly subversive in structure: no chorus, but instead two refrains repeated twice, allowing the song to build simply and tastefully (the strings here actually enhance the piano instead of drowning it out). “I've got things to do, like nothing at all / I wanna do them with you / Do you wanna do them with me?” Del Rey asks. And my heart breaks every time.
Antonoff does better on “A&W,” a song that’s too much on purpose, but in a darker, deeper way than either typically attempts. A&W, short for American Whore, is split into two sections. The first, dark, fast and minor-keyed, performed mainly on urgent piano and guitar with a few very sounds from harpsichords and what sounds like a theremin, is reminiscent of a modern Radiohead song, particularly 2016’s “Decks Dark.” But Del Rey’s voice and personal lyrics form a contrast to the urgency of the instrumental. It’s a rambling story, with the tone and form of one recounted breathlessly to a friend, little regard for telling, only flashes – with one of her greatest of the many refrains on this album: “I mean, look at me / Look at the length of my hair, and my face, the shape of my body.” The song works when others could fail simply because nearly every aspect is one of the greatest hooks ever. It’s stacked and perfect. The second part, almost completely melodically different, is a trap song which would sound amazing in a danceable environment. It’s an insane distortion, twisting around a nursery rhyme into nonsense, but it’s oddly compelling, and is certainly served much better by the excellent front end. Regardless, the song gels thematically to the rest of the album.
Del Rey’s next move is a left turn. “Judah Smith Interlude” is a 4.5-minute sermon informally recorded by Del Rey with light instrumental over it, giving it the gentle sensation of a monologue from a film, with a soundsong, rather than either song or sermon. It’s built to stand out, its own piece, so idiosyncratic and mysterious. And though Smith himself is a controversial figure to say the least, the Interlude’s themes of cosmic beauty and God as an artist resonated with me. Though Smith is delivering a Christian sermon, that theme is universal. Its inclusion in the context of the album is confusing and a little surprising, but it creates a trip into the natural, a voyage beyond song as music, into it as its most pure form.
And then the record moves on to “Candy Necklaces,” a sweet little song featuring pianist and singer Jon Batiste. It builds slowly, a simple piano giving way to pretty, unintrusive strings, floral guitars, and snaps of brass during Batiste’s piano solo: melt-in-your-mouth candy. It’s followed by the deeply enjoyable “Jon Batiste Interlude,” where the piano virtuoso plays over snippets of him and Del Rey talking and singing. Like much of the album, it’s unexpectedly dramatic, and though it meanders enough to make it not the most repeatable song, its inclusion on the album serves as what it says on the tin: an interlude.
We move then into “Kintsugi,” which seems an immediate separation from the earlier section of the album: Batiste’s interlude fades out, and we start here from silence. There isn’t much to be said about this one except that it’s beautiful; it is one of the ones I love best. It is simply produced, but complex in construction. Del Rey’s interpolation of a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” – compare just that to the nearly identical quote from another popular artist released very recently, and you can see openly and nakedly the pure form of her writing, when compared against those who cannot be honest without a wink, a couch, a vial of cowardly irony.
Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd? is a long album to match this long title. The thing is, God invented Spotify so you can stop an album whenever you want, and if there ever was an album not made for a cover-to-cover listen, this was one. Come back whenever you’re ready. It’ll always be here.
“Fingertips” is almost more of a sung poem than a song, no structure or chorus, just a twice-repeated phrase (“gave myself two seconds to cry”). It was apparently orchestrated and stapled together based on a few voice memos Del Rey sent to longtime producer Drew Erickson, and that’s immediately apparent: her vocals are poorly recorded and there’s a buzzing that comes in every time her vocals come in. I wish she had done another pass for the vocals, in a studio, because the buzzing is just so notable and so disturbs the way the song sounds. It’s defiantly amateur in this construction, which could make it seem more honest. I’m not sure if that is a choice that works for me, and I just wish she’d done another pass, Jesus. The song itself is well-constructed, and often gorgeous and deeply emotional, but that buzzing is like a worm in my brain. I love it anyway. I love its poetry and the way it flows, bucking and building. I love the moments of tension and drama. I love its honesty and its stories and its insecurity and its universality through specificity. And though it sounds grittier than my favorite local indie punk bands, it works, on some level, somehow.
The rawness of “Fingertips” serves as a direct contrast to “Paris, Texas,” one of the smoothest songs on the album. It takes a pre-existing instrumental song by artist SYML and re-records it, making the pianos even smoother and adding strings as well as Del Rey’s delicate vocals. It’s a deliberately simple departure from the lyrical complexities of the back half of the album, and it works very well. It’s easy to fall into, easy to fill with your own melancholies as a stand-in for Lana’s: sacrificing specificity and story for a powerful and very brief burst of bittersweetness where you really don’t need much to get the point. It gives me a similar feeling to Scout Tafoya’s movie Under Me You, a melancholy movie about friendship (available free on Vimeo), and both tug at the bottom of my heart in a way I find difficult to explain. The line “when you know you know” foreshadows its appearance later but works just as well
The next song, the ludicrously titled “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” does the exact same thing with an instrumental by pianist RIOPY. It doesn’t work as well as “Paris”– the instrumental isn’t as good, the tune isn’t as good, and the lyrics are a bit inscrutable– talk of “three white butterflies” doesn’t help much. But there’s still an unmistakable sense of melancholy to it, more than the rest of the album, it’s quiet even in its biggest moments, even as Lana chokes on obviously silly lines like “Regrettably, also a white woman.” I’d thought she’d left the self-rationalization on Blue. It’s still pretty, it’s still touching, but it’s one of the only songs on the album that I wouldn’t be shocked if someone didn’t like.
Luckily, we’re quickly followed with one of my favorite songs on the album: “Let The Light In.” A wispy and very classical guitar and piano, and a bit of synth in the background, with strings coming in alongside featured artist Father John Misty which makes the chorus really pop. It’s one of the more classically formed songs on the album in construction and that classicality makes it difficult to talk about. It’s sweet, it’s lovely, and I had an out of body experience while listening to it walking home at night in the middle of a storm, and really that’s what they should rename this album to: Music To Astral Project To.
“Margaret” is an ode to Jack Antonoff’s fiancé Margaret Qualley, featuring a whole verse from Antonoff, the only guest verse on the album, in fact. Del Rey’s portrait of storybook love from the perspective of an outsider is particularly affecting, her repetitions of “when you know you know,” and her explanations– “maybe tomorrow you’ll know”– carry the song beyond Antonoff’s self-indulgent verse (potentially poisonous in the context of his life). But hey, let the kid be happy. He’s in love. Doesn’t matter how true it is or who it’s really about, you’d have to be stone not to be affected. ‘Cause isn’t that what we all want? Not love, even– just to know. Just to know we know. (Another favorite).
We follow with “Fishtail,” which after a piano-guitar first verse spins into a more trap or electronic bent, recalling 2013-ish Goransson-Glover production, distorted voices and electronic clicks, little whirrs and beeps and voices in the background. It sounds only slightly different, a brilliant way of mixing styles. And it’s true what she says– “don’t you dare say that you’ll braid my hair if you don’t really care.” Don’t you dare.
The following song is “Peppers,” which is weird and very my taste: it strongly recalls 2013-era Sleigh Bells, particularly “That Did It,” their collaboration with rapper Tink, a mostly forgotten song (only on YouTube and SoundCloud) I really enjoy. The very abrasive chorus, a Tommy Genesis sample from 2015, is drowned out upon repeats, letting it blend into the instrumental and really work. The instrumental walls built by producers Del Rey and Antonoff switch genre second to second, at one point feeling like Sleigh Bells noise-pop, other times feeling like the song’s namesake The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a shock upon first listen, but it’ll only grow on me, I’m sure. I liked it on the tenth listen a lot more than I did the first, and I liked it the first time.
And the final song, Taco Truck x VB, oh god, I’m scared to talk about it I like it so much. It begins with a song fragment, really, that is just so good and well-composed, particularly for how it is isolated, slowly building to the only acoustic drums on the album and high-pianos and a de Palma reference and then a SECOND, DIFFERENT CHORUS and then it’s over, never to be repeated again, into an instrumental section that takes us through to the coup of the entire album, an improvement on “Venice Bitch,” the 9-minute monstrosity from Del Rey’s sixth album. This electronic-fueled, dark, and grand version makes the song sound big for the first time, and its simplicity and rawness stand in direct contrast to the placidity and painlessness of the NFR! version. It’s my favorite thing on the album and it’s inexplicably attached to one of Del Rey’s most infectious song fragments. Who knows why? All I know is it comes together to form a nearly-perfect closing song, a closed loop.
The album’s long. It’s probably bloated, somewhere. Del Rey has created a grab bag; 16 songs not all of her fans will like but with something in there for everyone– in a way that lets all the most distinct songs stand bright on their own, despite each distinct song being different for all: all 16 are evenly constructed and all 16 deserve their own highlights, and I hope I’ve done them justice as much as I know I haven’t. I feel like my role here is like a good food critic, or a particularly talented waiter: I’m here to make you hungry. What kind of asshole wants something lean?
Perhaps the reason Del Rey above all other mainstream artists has captured my ear is because she has the unique power to make me feel as if she’s singing to me and me alone. Other people may listen, but it’s mine. I own it. Often, I discover obscure or independent music as a way to achieve this, but Del Rey has the unique power to capture this feeling of exclusivity and personalism while being enormously, rapturously popular. More deserved than words. I know now that there is a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, and it leads directly to my heart.