Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey has been a major contributor to the music industry since her rise to fame with her 2011 album Born to Die, but throughout her time as an artist, her focus stylistically has been anything but stagnant. Experimenting with elements of pop, rock, and most recently indie alternative, Del Rey has continued to keep new sounds coming while still staying true to her roots of refined yet personal storytelling. On her latest record Chemtrails Over the Country Club, she delves even further into the indie alternative she touched on in her 2019 project Norman F*****g Rockwell!, but takes it in a more somber direction. The sound Del Rey goes for on Chemtrails at first seems to allow her rich voice and narrative ability to shine through, but there isn’t much differentiation sonically across the track list other than a few flashes of potential. This lack of unique sounds across the record makes it feel like a lackluster transitional period rather than the personal and emotional endeavor it was meant to be.
The record begins with the track “White Dress,” and both Del Rey’s new direction in sound and her strong focus on telling her own personal stories are front and center. The storytelling is powerful with Del Rey reflecting on her life before fame and if her career in the spotlight has been worth it at all. With blunt but emotionally charged lyrics like, “But I would still go back / If I could do it all again, I thought / Because it made me feel, made me feel like a god,” it’s clear that she feels a sense of power from her music. With her gazing back on her life before music on this song, listening through it feels like a look into the uncertainty in her mind in regards to the music industry and exactly how it has affected her in her life, and it works very well with the overall themes of the record.
The problem with this track comes with the music itself, more specifically the vocal style that Del Rey attempts during the chorus. Lyrically the chorus shines like the rest of the song, but the falsetto she goes for is so abnormal that it really hurts the song. Rather than using the strength in her voice that she is so well known for, she instead makes herself sound like she just ran a mile and can barely catch her breath so she is squeaking out any notes that she possibly can. The intent of the vocal delivery seems to be to show a sense of fragility to go along with the narrative of the track, but the sound just doesn’t work and distracts way too much from any meaning it could have developed otherwise. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was only in one portion of the song, but instead Del Rey decides to sing her oddly strained falsetto three times just in case it wasn’t out of place enough the first time hearing it. The cherry on top is that with a length of over five and a half minutes, almost every verse feels like a rehash of the last. With this being the opening track, it’s never good to already have a listener wanting to hurry up a song before even getting to the second track of the record.
After the rocky start with the beginning of the album, a track with more interesting instrumentation and well done vocals is needed, and “Dark But Just a Game” acts as exactly that. The instrumental arrangement is immediately the most interesting on the entire record, with lush guitars and soft yet defined drum hits layered under Del Rey’s crooning vocals to emphasize them even further. The difference between a track like “Dark But Just a Game” and “White Dress” that sets apart the success from failure is having a focus going into the song, but also being able to keep the listener engaged too. “White Dress” had a clear focus lyrically on looking back at the time before fame but the lack of refined vocals ruined it. “Dark But Just a Game” is the polar opposite, with Del Rey’s vocals being beautiful and full of emotion but never taking away from the rest of the track.
Not only is this song fantastic sonically, but the insight on fame that she discusses is sharp and to the point while still leaving room for interpretation, with one example of the great lyrics in her observation that, “We keep changing all the time / The best ones lost their minds / So I’m not gonna change / I’ll stay the same.” Del Rey understands that fame can change people and even bring them down dark paths, and her promise to stay the same for herself shows maturity in her outlook on the music industry and her place within it. It is so refreshing to hear such highpoints in both the writing and the sound in an album with not many other standout instances. But because of that, it makes it very difficult to want to get through the rest of the record as the trajectory goes right back down from this song.
Speaking of that downward trajectory, the track following “Dark But Just a Game,” that being “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” loses everything that made the track before it so great. The instrumentation is simple to a fault with only extremely soft guitars alongside Del Rey’s layered vocal arrangement. Even if the intent of this song is to be more barebones to give a personal tone to it, it just ends up being uninteresting. Rather than emphasizing what she is trying to get across with her singing, it instead makes it a chore to even pay attention to what she has to say in her vocals. To make it clear, the guitars don’t actually sound bad, and her vocal delivery sounds quite good in both her lower notes as well as the higher notes she hits, the negative aspect of it is really just the lack of anything unique going on. It’s obvious that Del Rey is able to be strong creatively as shown by the previous track (and albums), but all of that goes out the window here.
Besides just the uninteresting instrumentals, she has some of the album’s weakest writing on this song. The chorus is just a very slightly changed version of a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien being repeated a few times, so already there isn’t much of anything unique on the lyrical side. Then with the few individual verses on the track, there still isn’t enough substance to sway the already lacking writing in a positive direction. The cohesiveness of the album isn’t an issue because regardless of the writing or music being lackluster or not on a particular track, the themes of reflection and exploration of oneself and the effects of fame are understood throughout the record. The problems come where the ideas are present, but they don’t get developed enough over the course of the track list to make each track its own individual experience.
Finishing off the record is the track “For Free,” which is a cover version of the original sung by Joni Mitchell. Already, it seems sort of odd to put a cover of a song on an original album seemingly out of nowhere, but the song’s themes do mesh very well with the album as a whole so it does fit appropriately into the overall scope of the record. The lyrics “Nobody stopped to hear him / Though he played so sweet and high / They knew he had never been on the TV / So they passed his music by” perfectly coincide with the subjects already talked about like the downsides of fame and how the music industry doesn’t appreciate what isn’t in the spotlight, so lyrically, it was a good choice to cover this song with the rest of the album.
The song is also one of the better ones on the record, with the instrumentation being a soft piano accompaniment that fits the track’s mellow tone well but still manages to sound dynamic, and the vocals being rich and powerful across the song. As a standalone song, it works well and everything fits great together. But with this being a review of the album as a whole, the problem with this track along with most of the record is just the lack of unique elements to set it apart from the rest. With “For Free” specifically, it highlights the lack of unique musicality even more because as Del Rey covers a song that has been around since the 70’s, she still manages to make it sound exactly the same as the original. Even down to the odd pronunciations of certain words, she copies them directly from the original and with this being the last song on the record, it really seems like a fitting way to tell the listener one last time that you shouldn’t expect much unique music on this album.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club is an extremely interesting album — but not because of the music itself. Rather, it is the way that Lana Del Rey manages to take a great narrative concept about fame and power in the music industry that she knows so much about and water it down into one sound across an entire record. Many of the tracks on this album are not terrible on their own, and many can be good for simple relaxing background music. But with the track list as a whole, it’s difficult to even enjoy listening even after the first half because all of the songs sound like rehashes with slightly different instrumentation and negligible changes in vocals. And when Del Rey does decide to take some sort of creative liberty whether that be in her delivery or the instrumental she is backed by, more often than not, it becomes more of a distraction rather than an addition. Her past projects have proven she has potential to develop new sounds and the flashes of greatness on this record like “Dark But Just a Game” further enforce that. But with the lack of any consistently show stopping moments in almost any of the track list combined with not much differentiation between tracks at all, the record bleeds together in a way that is past the realm of cohesive and is instead a bland mess.
Liam Fitzpatrick is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl