Lana Del Rey makes another album just for me

by Chase Goldberg Friedman

Lana Del Rey makes another album just for me

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.

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