By Megan Gregoire
Boston University News Service
Lana Del Rey returned to her songwriting roots reminiscent of her earlier days while experimenting with her constantly evolving sound, in “Blue Banisters,” the follow-up to March 2021’s “Chemtrails over the Country Club.”
Following a disappointing fan reception with “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” “Blue Banisters” feels like both a love letter to her dedicated fans as well as a dreamy retelling of the COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of a lover of the city of Los Angeles.
Starting with the standout track of the album “Dealer,” we see a different side of Del Rey’s musical stylings as she strays away from the soft-spoken lounge singer archetype she usually embodies in her work.
As the chorus picks up, Lana joins the track as she belts the lyric “I don’t want to live,” as the sounds of pain and true aggression radiate in her voice. This agony-filled chorus marks a first for Del Rey, as fans can finally see the true range the songstress possesses with her voice.
Del Rey is joined by English singer Miles Kane on the track, whose past experience in the lounge-esque, boozy-vocalled group Last Shadow Puppets shines through as he croons lines such as “I can’t sleep through the tears, I get lost in the ether.”
Kane’s inclusion on this track plus the production from Zachary Dawes — bassist for the Last Shadow Puppets — throughout the entire album adds to the sounds that make it feel as though you have been teleported to a ’50s hotel lounge performance.
We see a more angry, enraged version of Del Rey in this track, but we also see the aesthetic retro-dream girl elements fans know her for at the same time, as seen in the lyric “All circuits are busy, goodbye, all circuits are busy, you’re high.”
This lyric adds a spiritual, almost extraterrestrial element to the song reminiscent of the psychedelic rock sounds that dominated her 2014 album “Ultraviolence” on songs like “Florida Kilos” or the titular track. Now, though, she updates her sound with an element of edge and pain that we’ve yet to see from her.
Longtime fans of Del Rey may recognize the themes that are constant throughout her discography; dreamy references to Los Angeles, the realities and romanticization of toxic relationships, her “bad girl” reputation, and the daydreams of falling in love with older men riding motorcycles.
With lyrics in the song “Blue Banisters,” like “There’s a man that’s still right there, he’s real enough to touch/In my darkest nights, he’s shinin’,” it exemplifies the Lana-ism that a bad girl is saved by her moody ’70s bad boy knight in shining armor.
But now, there is an added twist of the album being created under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This can be seen the most in the track “Black Bathing Suit,” where she begins with the lyrics “Grenadine, quarantine/I like you a lot/It’s LA, hey on Zoom, Target parking lot.”
While the sounds of her past releases have transported listeners to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, this album takes place in the present day and is clearly a central theme. It proves for the first time since the single “Looking for America,” Del Rey can serve her fans the aesthetic they have come to love her for while discussing modern-day society.
Del Rey also sings about the Black Lives Matter movement, on “Textbook,” a song that serves as a track full of self-reflection in a time of activism and social change. She sings, “There we were, screaming Black Lives Matter in the crowd.” It’s worth noting the controversial context that surrounds this choice on Del Rey’s part. Last year, she received public backlash for posting a note on Instagram called “A Question for the Culture,” in which she openly questioned why musicians of color such as Doja Cat, Beyonce and Cardi B are lauded for releasing “racy” and “sexy” music, but she receives hate when she tries to do it.
Immediately bombarded with accusations of racism, she deleted the post. She posted an Instagram story video addressing the matter, which many fans were upset with, following the widespread media attention and controversy it received.
Addressing the BLM movement in “Textbook” feels more like a poor attempt to show support than directly addressing the initial controversy surrounding the post and her views.
“Wildflower Wildfire” is another standout. It’s a comparison between wanting a love to last forever with a wildfire. Del Rey has escalated her use of fire-related imagery since last year’s wildfires in California, which makes for a beautifully painful song. It evokes a sense of longing, the hope that you won’t end up alone and the ability to find your perfect half with lines such as “Not to turn into a wildfire/to light up your night/with only my smile and nothing that burn.”
She follows this imagery up again in the song “Blue Banisters,” with the line “I said I’m scared of the Santa Clarita fires, I wish that it would rain.” It shows again the modern-day impact that is taking effect on Del Rey’s music, with the recurring political, social, and topical themes beginning to pop up in each of her works.
Other tracks like “Nectar of the Gods,” “Cherry Blossom” and “Living Legend,” have been living on Soundcloud since 2013. The three tracks were initially recorded for “Ultraviolence” and ultimately were never used.
These songs have had professionally recorded versions circulating online for years, and the difference between these newer rerecordings and the originals is slim. I think with new producers on her side such as Dawes and Mike Dean, I was hoping to see an updated production, with a new spin that coincides more with the production on this album versus “Ultraviolence.”
As I had already heard all three songs on Spotify playlists for unreleased Lana music, it felt like the album transitioned from a stand-alone Lana album into Ultraviolence 2.0 or a compilation of Lana’s greatest unreleased hits.
While the three songs are beautiful, using them on the album feels lazy on Del Rey’s part. It seems as though she used all her new material on “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” earlier this year, saw the poor reaction it received, and went into her archives to give her fans old, recycled music to get back in their good graces.
It doesn’t connect with the rest of the album, as it was initially written for a completely different album and shoots the listener straight back into the past, ignoring the themes of the pandemic and modern life that she tries so hard to create in the beginning.
While the album showcases current topics and a new style for Del Rey, these three songs specifically reflect the era that Del Rey was in during 2013, not 2021. 2013 Lana was the queen of Tumblr, flower-crown adorned girls with dreams of meeting their dream bad boy; 2021 Lana is more politically charged and poetic for her more “grown-up audience.”
That being said, compared to “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” this feels like a return to the Lana Del Rey that Tumblr kids of the early 2010s came to love. As a longtime Lana fan myself, I was happy to see this return, but also excited by the evolution she has taken to achieve a more psychedelic/folk-rock sound. It is what made me love albums such as “Ultraviolence” and “Lust for Life.”
The use of old songs from the “Ultraviolence” era served as a nice reminder of how amazing that specific album was but felt misused, contradicting the new sound she was trying to create with “Blue Banisters.”