Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Lana Del Rey Blue Banisters

Polydor/Interscope
2021
Polydor/Interscope
2021

You don’t envision yourself spending the apocalypse on the couch. You assume that when the end comes, the fire or the flood, you’ll brave the torrent. You’ll save someone, do something. But for many of us the End Times have brought a dispersed, diluted disaster: little horrors everywhere, push alerts with images of burning hills, pleas to stop breathing the same air. We’ve lived in a state of apocalypse for so long now that it’s mashed into the mundane; we keep a death toll in one browser tab, a blinking shopping cart in the other.

Maybe no major star articulates this slow-moving crisis better than Lana Del Rey. She’s always sung about crumbling Americana, but her writing sharpened and took shape over the years. She cycled through her glittering, Gatsby-esque odes to excess (in a maybe too on-the-nose moment, crooning the best-known track off the Gatsby movie remake soundtrack), her flirtations with hip-hop and trap beats, her Lolita iconography. She’s always been an expert imagist, so deft at word association that conjures a precise texture and mood and scene: getting high by the beach, Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice, “Diet Mountain Dew, baby, New York City.” Then came Norman Fucking Rockwell!, her masterpiece and her mission statement. She set out to trace the architecture of collapse, the tragedy and inanity in this constant desolation — “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball,” she murmured, a sendoff only she could deliver. Norman Fucking Rockwell! gave Lana the critical acclaim she’d been denied for nearly a decade. She earned Grammy nominations, glowing reviews. People took her seriously, now. They got her, or at least they were willing to try.

It’s tough to follow up a career-defining album like that, and harder still in a pandemic. She released Chemtrails Over the Country Club in May, a softer and smaller album that pressed on the themes of Norman Fucking Rockwell! with a gentler touch. She paid homage to a decaying country, with tremors of folksy freedom. Not six months later, she’s back with another record, one that arrived to many listeners ahead of even Lana’s breakneck schedule via a sometimes grainy leak. Blue Banisters is Lana’s pandemic record, a sisterly companion to Chemtrails.

Lana traces the incessant calamity unfolding around her here, but she spends equal, if not more, time sketching out the contours of her internal life. “If this is the end, I want a boyfriend,” she trills over the music box chimes of “Black Bathing Suit,” a song explicitly rooted in quarantine — someone to eat ice cream with, she goes on to add, someone to walk home with from the mall. She spends the start of “Violets For Roses” exalting in watching girls spin around in their summer dresses, not a mask in sight, but quickly shifts her focus from the seemingly waning pandemic to condemning a man who tried to change her. These parallels feel deliberate: the end of a relationship and the demise of the world around it. She searches for fragments of tenderness in both.

But this is also an album about searching within herself, and Lana takes her roaming gaze not just through the sweep of cities and states whose name she sings like prayers (“Oooklahoma,” “Cali-forn-iiiii-ayyy,” whatever a “Brooklyn bayou” is) but through her past. Trapped in quarantine, we’re led to believe, Lana’s thought a lot about childhood trauma, how our families fold us into patterns. She name-checks her sister Chuck in the title track (“Chucky’s making birthday cake”) and sings about a strained relationship with her parents on “Wildflower Wildfire.” “Here’s the deal,” she repeats over and over on that track before telling us about her raging mother and placating father, as if signaling that she’s finally letting us in. “I was looking for the father I wanted back,” she breathes over cavernous, trembling drums on “Text Book.” It feels both intoxicating and inevitable to hear Lana apply her gift of myth-making to her upbringing. (There’s also more than a touch of defensiveness here: Fans and critics have branded her as inauthentic for her entire career, and parsing her past seems like a relatively safe bet to weather her never-ending controversies.)

None of these ideas or stories are new, she says on “Text Book,” and Lana hasn’t relished inhabiting a cliche like this since her earlier albums, when she could make poetry out of the worn-out image of a girl with a fake ID flirting for drinks. But at times on Banisters, she deploys clichés without interrogating or adding a layer of irony to them. “Let me show you how bad girls do,” she moans on “Black Bathing Suit,” before a chorus of layered vocals chant: “‘Cause no one does it better!” Is this a Born To Die-dipped homage to MIA? Is she rolling her eyes or staring right at us? On “Beautiful,” she assures us that she can spin heartbreak into art. “I can turn blue into something beautiful,” she murmurs, a strained and overdetermined sentiment. She tells us what we already know; it sounds suspiciously like playing safe. “Since I fell out of love with you, I fell back in love with me,” she trills on “Violets For Roses,” a Carrie Bradshaw-ism that sounds out of place in Lana’s usually incisive songwriting.

But Lana can be fantastic at deconstructing a breakup, wringing all the melodrama she can out of a doomed relationship. She gives a woozy waltz for the end of the world on “If You Lie Me Down,” begging a lover to spin her around a room until she’s sick. On “Thunder,” she watches a boyfriend turn into “Mr. Brightside” at parties, warm and whiskey-breathed and glittering. As the song builds, she gets increasingly frantic while pleading with him to just end things already, to not keep her waiting. There’s a hectic momentum coursing through even the slower songs on the record. “Dealer” starts with simmering drums, a placid duet, but then midway through the track, Lana begins to wail. “I don’t want to liiiiive!” she yowls, like she’s dragging the vowel through her ragged throat.

It’s a rawer sound than she stuck to on Chemtrails. After working closely with Lana on her last two LPs, Jack Antonoff isn’t involved with Banisters. He’s replaced by an assortment of co-writers and producers, most frequently Drew Erickson (Weyes Blood, Tim Heidecker), Gabe Simon (Maroon 5, Mat Kearney), and Zachary Dawes, the bassist for side-project rockers the Last Shadow Puppets and Mini Mansions. Longtime collaborator Rick Nowels returns for “Cherry Blossom.” Hip-hop legend and longtime Kanye West sidekick Mike Dean also pops up here and there, but it’s Lana’s ex-fiancé Clayton Johnson and his brother Chantry who throw trap-lite drums under an Ennio Morricone score on “Interlude – The Trio.” A squeal of strings at the start of “Thunder” sounds like a fraction of the orchestral elegy that kicked off “Born To Die.” Lana name-checks Nikki Lane on the title track and adapts the twang and rumble of country throughout the record, a continuation of Chemtrails’ sound. She slips back into the high, breathy voice she used for much of Chemtrails but also dips into her lower register, sinking into almost a growl at the start of “If You Lie Down With Me.”

She’s trying on some new tactics and churning through ones she hasn’t used in years. In some ways Banisters feels like the purest distillation of the Lana Del Rey project, the grandeur and grasping of her earlier albums fused with her more recent music’s romance and scope. The twinkling closing track “Sweet Carolina” reads like a parody of Lana lyrics, a blast of found poetry for a broken era: “You name your babe Lilac Heaven/ After your iPhone 11/ ‘Crypto forever,’ screams your stupid boyfriend/ Fuck you, Kevin.” Only Lana could make this work.

There are sublime stretches on the album, but it slows and dulls in the last few songs. Those “Sweet Carolina” lyrics jolt you out of the silky soup, the lilting layered vocals. There’s a brilliant album hovering just below the surface, and I wonder what Lana could have excavated if she’d let the record sit for a little longer; it’s hard to not be reminded of Taylor Swift’s twin pandemic records released in quick succession, how monumental of an album she could have made if she’d combined them into one. Between Chemtrails and Blue Banisters, you could piece together a record with the ache and verve and intricacy of Norman Fucking Rockwell! That’s the downside of having such a titanic, triumphant record in her catalog — every album that comes after will claw at comparisons to Lana’s best work. In that context, Blue Banisters may well be a disappointment, but in another sense it’s appropriate that the album fades into background music at times. Here is another soundtrack for another slog — something to play while refreshing the news and recharging your phone, waiting for a moment when normal becomes anything other than this.

Blue Banisters is out 10/22 on Polydor/Interscope.

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