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Longing As Reality: Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over the Country Club”

April 9, 2021


Lana Del Rey was born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant and raised Catholic in upstate New York. She learned to sing in her parish choir and later studied philosophy briefly at Fordham University. She then invented the name and persona of Lana Del Ray and began producing eclectic pop songs that were thick with old Hollywood glamor and nostalgic Americana. Her albums feature wildly different vocal styles and production, and her appearance changes often.

In 2019, she received critical acclaim for her album Norman F*****g Rockwell, which offered glimpses of sincerity behind the pop star façade. The album’s best song, aptly called “The Greatest,” is a heartfelt lament about the state of her soul, and the world. She sings, “The culture is lit and I’ve had a ball. I guess I’m signing off after all.”

Recently, Lana released Chemtrails Over the Country Club, which carries the previous album’s themes of authentic love and spiritual exploration forward magnificently. Chemtrails is in many ways a tribute to one of Lana’s heroes, Joni Mitchell, and Lana’s poetry on the record pairs with a softer, more intimate production than on previous endeavors. On Chemtrails, Lana explores a topic that used to be commonplace in pop music—erotic desire—and points to a much deeper longing rarely articulated so boldly in the public square nowadays: the longing for God.

Whereas Lana’s earlier music and videos often feature an indulgent, materialistic vibe rooted in costume play (cosplay), Chemtrails grasps after the things that endure. It subtly proclaims: Be real. Be wild. Be a man. Be a woman. Feel. Contemplate your existence before God.

For devout Catholics, the reality Lana calls for may include (or require) a call to repentance. But at various moments, her words are not far from the kingdom of heaven. Chemtrails is full of heart, which Fr. Luigi Giussani describes in his book The Religious Sense as “elementary experience. . . . Something that tends to indicate totally the original impetus with which the human being reaches out to reality, seeking to become one with it.”

Like her previous album, Lana co-wrote all the songs on Chemtrails Over the Country Club with producer Jack Antonoff, with one notable exception. A unifying theme for all eleven songs is the absurdity of fame, and the authenticity of the flyover territories whose values are far removed from Lana’s elite Los Angeles and New York settings. Out there, people really love, and they believe. They also live with the pain that both things entail.

The album opens with “White Dress,” an incredible vocal performance where Lana goes high up in her range, with a soft fragility consonant with the subject matter. She describes herself as a nineteen-year-old, long before she was a star, when she “felt seen” at a creepy “Men in Music Business Conference” in Orlando. She sings, “I would still go back if I could do it all again,” and “It made me feel like a god.” She does not glamorize being objectified, but rather recollects a delicate moment of feeling wanted, and alive—real.

The title track, “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” challenges the narrative that bourgeois existence is the hell artists make it out to be. Lana sings the part of a well-off housewife, confessing, “I’m not unhinged or unhappy, I’m just wild. I’m on the run with you, my sweet love.” Maybe there is no greater adventure, or deeper conspiracy, than getting married, settling down in the suburbs, and “contemplating God.” She concludes, “It’s beautiful how this deep normality settles over me.” Although Lana does not have a husband or children in real life, her song reminds us how rare it would be to find a parent—even on her worst day—who would actually trade her “normal” life for celebrity status.

“Tulsa Jesus Freak” is an exploration of the mixed-up feelings of religious fervor and worldly sensuality. Lana asks her troubled man to “sing me like a Bible hymn,” and she desires to move beyond the temporary and weak attachments of the world. She sings “no more candle in the wind” for the first of two different times on the album. Instead, she seeks, “a little piece of heaven” that burns “white hot forever.” Again, passion is good—all-important, even. But for real human flourishing, it’s all about how it is ordered.

“Let Me Love You Like a Woman” is the main attraction of the album, and one of the best pop songs of recent memory from any artist. It is a ballad evocative of the 1990s act Mazzy Star, and the lyrics offer one of the boldest assertions of traditional femininity and gender roles in contemporary mainstream culture. Lana sings,

Let me love you like a woman. Let me hold you like a baby. Let me shine like a diamond. Let me be who I’m meant to be. Talk to me in poems and songs. Don’t make me be bittersweet.

She then sings about leaving Los Angeles for any other, smaller town, as well as for “infinity.” Again, Fr. Giussani notes that “the authentically religious [woman] accepts the infinite as [her] meaning.”

In “Wild at Heart,” Lana challenges her man to be a man. She refuses to be mopey, indifferent, or cynical: “If you love me, you’ll love me.” In “Dark but Just a Game,” she picks up the opening track’s theme of rejecting fame, with a trip-hop vibe reminiscent of Portishead. “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” is a treat for Tolkien nerds. The lyrics again emphasize both romantic love and spiritual exploration. Lana sings, “You talk to God like I do.”

“Yosemite” captures the beautiful, eerie feel of the western desert, and it uses the prominent line “no more candle in the wind” for the second time on the album. Lana imagines her place in eternity: “Seasons may change, but we won’t change.” The next song, “Breaking Up Slowly,” is a portrait of long-suffering monogamy that puts a more realistic face on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.” Lana sings, “I love you, but it’s making me blue.” Moreover, where relationships fail, there is virtue in not jumping to a new partner: “It’s hard to be lonely, but it’s the right thing to do.”

“Dance Till We Die” is an homage not only to Joni, but to Joan Baez and Stevie Nicks, focusing again on the curse of fame, and the complexity of love. The desire for stability amid the endless movement of life is reminiscent of “Burnt Norton” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The album concludes, appropriately, with a cover of Joni’s “For Free,” a beautiful song from her transitional 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. There’s something “real good” out there beyond fame and beyond the constructed self.

Chemtrails Over the Country Club is a breath of fresh air in a spiritually arid popular culture landscape. How much of Lana Del Rey’s Catholic upbringing feeds into her current spiritual journey remains unclear, but her longing for a material existence that connects to the infinity of her Creator resonates deeply with an authentic Catholic sensibility.

Or maybe Lana’s seemingly sincere longing will prove to have been yet another persona. It could all be pastiche—just another look. But while it lasts, there is much in it to admire.

Listening to Chemtrails Over the Country Club is good for the soul. And the ears.