Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Album Review: Lana Del Rey - Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Blvd

Lana Del Rey
Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Blvd
**** out of *****

I want to start with a disclaimer. I'm largely unfamiliar with Lana Del Rey's catalogue. For some reason, I found Lana Del Rey too zeitgeisty and assumed her music would not be for me. After listening to Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, I have to admit that I was wrong. 

It's not a masterpiece, but it blows me away. Her painfully confessional lyrics, interspersed with provocations and cultural references (to everything from John Denver to Forensic Files), are poetic and searing. Its au courant allusions layered on top of stream-of-consciousness stories of personal struggle and family tragedy remind me quite a bit of the novel No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. And there hasn't been an album that's captured how strange and fucked it up feels to be a woman in America today since the last album I reviewed for RtBE, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, but whereas Fiona Apple's words were delivered with primitive, syncopated urgency, Lana Del Rey's delivery is ethereal and like she's feeling cute, might delete later. 

The album begins strongly with the gorgeously orchestrated "The Grants," a meditation on family, love, and the memories we take with us when we die. (LDR's real name is Elizabeth Grant, and on the album she references her family, including name-checking her sister, Caroline, several times.) It's wistful and plaintive. It's reminiscent of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me," which literally gets referenced and interpolated in the next song, the titular track, in which LDR compares her soul to the beautiful, mosaiced, closed-off tunnel that people don't know about. It's so good. 

"Sweet," is a pick-me appeal in the form of a lush, trilling ballad, as LDR croons, "Do you want children? Do you wanna marry me? Do you wanna run marathons in Long Beach by the sea?" and assures the listener that she's different, she's sweet, she's not "a basic bitch." 

After singing about how she's just a sweet girl from the North Country, she transitions into "A&W," which stands for American whore, the most provocative and jarring song on the album, and one of the best. The first half has LDR mumbling, as if embarrassed, about her reaching out to lovers, at least one of them a taken man, to hook up in hotel rooms. "I say I live in Rosemead, really I'm at the Ramada." "Puts the shower on while he calls me, slips out the back door to talk to me," feels very real, and there's an uncomfortable balance between empowerment, the stigma of unwanted sexualization and commodification, and outright shame. She sings that she wouldn't be believed if she said she were raped; "I won't testify, I already fucked up my story." Then, darkly, the song shifts from soprano folk to a gruff segue complete with zipper sounds, to trap beats and a take on Anthony & the Imperials' "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Pop," (itself a take on the classic children's clapping song "Down Down Baby"), in which Del Rey sings about "Jimmy Jimmy" whose "Mom called, I told her you're fucking up big time." 

The album then sags for a few tracks: "Judah Smith Interlude," during which the megachurch preacher rambles and Lana laughs (ironically and mockingly, I think?), "Candy Necklace" featuring Jon Batiste, another interlude featuring Batiste, then "Kitsugi," which is nice and contains allusions to Leonard Cohen's "Anthem." 

It then climbs to stellar heights with "Fingertips," my other favorite track besides "A&W," which has Del Rey looking back at her family, memories from her adolescence when she was "sent away" for her mental health, and unforgivable things she recalls her mother saying to her. While LDR sings openly about her father, brother, and sister, at one point the word "mother" is slurred out, as if censored, and the effect is startling and impactful. The lyrics are heartbreaking, made all the more so by her crystalline voice cracking. "I was in Monaco, I couldn't hear what they said on the telephone, I had to sing for the prince in 2 hours, sat in the shower, gave myself 2 seconds to cry. It's a shame that we die." The chord progression is haunting and hymn-like. 

"Fingertips" is devastating, and it's followed by another run of great songs: the waltzy "Paris, Texas," then "Grandfather, please stand on the shoulders of my father while he's deep-sea fishing," and the Nilsson-esque "Let the Light In." After "Margaret," she veers into what I, as an admitted LDR dilettante, would classify as more of a classic Lana Del Rey sound on "Fishtail", and another lower point of the album (still not bad, though!), "Peppers." 

The closing track is the self-referential "Taco Truck x VB," which starts off with a reggae-like beat and then transitions into a re-envisioning of her own opus from Norman Fucking Rockwell!, "Venice Bitch." Del Rey's savviness is on display here in all its glory, from her remixing her own song, cementing its iconic status, to her tongue-in-cheek lyrics. When she sings "that's why they call me Lanita," she knows that many listeners (myself included) are rolling their eyes at the cultural appropriation, so then she hits us with "Before you talk, let me stop what you're saying, I know, I know, I know that you hate me." She got me. 

I'm a convert.
Support the artist, buy the album and peep some video below:

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