Graphic by Esmé Warmuth
Lana Del Rey is a dichotomous woman. A pouty-lipped and doe-eyed marketing mogul, “not not a feminist” and a self-proclaimed gangster Nancy Sinatra. Since her 2012 hit single “Video Games” propelled her to instant stardom, Del Rey’s usage of aesthetics has outlined her status as a culture-defining icon. It’s also gotten her into trouble with the media. She floats between the old Hollywood-esque Joan Didion-protagonist type — think diamonds, drugs, and tragic beauty — and trailer park Americana featuring gas stations, motels and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Somewhere between the two, Del Rey’s lyrical oeuvre contains odes to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Del Rey examines patriarchal abuse extensively, from domestic violence to inappropriate age gaps — but never without nuance. On the controversial track “Ultraviolence,” Del Rey warbled the lyrics, “he hit me and it felt like a kiss,” and her name was indefinitely tarnished with claims of glamorizing abuse. Del Rey was recounting her own experiences with rose-colored glasses, and the lyrics also highlight the trauma that comes with intimate partner abuse. Others took “Ultraviolence” as a pro-patriarchy manifesto. If people disliked her for being so shrouded in delicate feminine aesthetics before — now, they hated her for making abuse sound pretty.
On her latest record Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Del Rey lets the light in for the first time. Ocean Blvd serves as a crash course on the singer, containing modules on her iconography, family history and psyche. The project is a moody memoir filled with wordy verses and references to modern culture — such as COVID, vaping and Teen Idle by MARINA. Del Rey’s distinctive persona led to her infamy as critics pegged her as an industry plant just as soon as she became successful. Despite this, after years of hiding behind poetic and deeply enigmatic storytelling — she has blown away the smoke.
On “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” Del Rey acknowledges the industry plant accusations. She enunciates the lyrics:
I know they think that it took thousands of people
To put me together again
Like an experiment.
These lines are striking because of their content, but also because Del Rey strays from her usual apathetic mumble. On the rest of the album, she sounds bored to death as she whispers and trails off mid-lyric. Only Del Rey could make that boredom sound so captivating — like she’s too cool, and we’re lucky she even showed up to the studio.
Ocean Blvd is a self-indulgent reflection of Del Rey’s discography. The last song on the album, “Taco Truck x VB,” closes with two and a half minutes from Norman Fucking Rockwell! track “Venice Bitch,” but this time with an ascending trap beat underneath her vocals. Del Rey interweaves hip-hop elements throughout the record at her own leisure. Musically, Ocean Blvd cherrypicks productions and themes from her previous albums and renews them, containing elements of Ultraviolence’s echo and reverb, Honeymoon’s grandeur and Chemtrails Over The Country Club’s quiet intimacy.
On the single “A&W,” she makes us wait five minutes for a change in tempo and production — a buzzing throwback to Lust for Life. Ultraviolence’s abusive male love interest, “Jimmy,” also comes back on “A&W,” and he’s still the worst. Del Rey utters verses about his cocaine-laced cigarettes and how he “only loves [her] when he wanna get high.” Almost a decade later, she’s still one of his many conquests — “Did you know a singer can still be/Looking like a side piece at 33?” she whispers in a long verse, reflecting on the tension between sexual empowerment and objectification. Del Rey sings, “This is the experience of being an American who-ah,” in a Brooklyn accent — similar to the one from Ultraviolence’s “Brooklyn Baby” nine years ago.
Ocean Blvd might be the most characteristically Lana album yet — effectively giving us a crash course in her life. In “Paris, Texas,” she details being transferred to a host family in Spain after attending a Connecticut boarding school as a means of combating her alcoholism at 14. She touches on her subsequent mommy issues in “A&W,” singing “I haven’t seen my mother in a long, long time.” Del Rey’s Sylvia Plath-ish fig tree problems are abundant — fame, family and friendship are branching out in front of her and falling to her feet. The fallen figs are addressed on the monologic “Fingertips,” singing “Will the baby be alright/Will I have one of mine?/Can I handle it even if I do?“
As on-brand as it is, Ocean Blvd is a spectrum of sounds and feelings. Whereas her previous albums feature one or a few motifs and sounds, her latest project has depth in production, symbolism and sound. The song “Peppers” features Canadian rapper Tommy Genesis, who raps the chorus. Underneath it lies a thumping bass line, which compliments Del Rey’s sweet, mischievous murmurs “got a knife in my jacket, honey on the vine” before she circles back to the hip-hop sample. Del Rey touches on folk just as much as trap though — especially on “Let The Light In,” featuring alternative musician Father John Misty. The track sways calmly as she harmonizes oxymoronically with Father John Misty about a turbulent, toxic romance. The acoustic guitar melody that accompanies the two sounds like something you’d hear at a bonfire, while drinking one of the PBRs referenced on Born to Die.
After years of lyrical nods to Sylvia Plath, such as her admitted obsession with the writer on “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it”, Del Rey delves into her own confessional work on Ocean Blvd. She speaks in poetry over the soft, barely melodic piano, more than she sings. Del Rey speaks carefully though, and with self-awareness erring on the side of caution after so many controversies. Del Rey closes out “Fishtail” with the lyrics “I’m not that smart/But I’ve got things to say.” Her voice stands alone during these lines, emphasizing the newfound carefulness in her defiance. The quietness of Ocean Blvd is telling — she doesn’t need anything but her voice to say that she doesn’t owe the world another radio hit. Its lack of a hook is defiant.
In Ocean Blvd’s hour-long stream of consciousness, Del Rey speaks her mind, and not necessarily articulately — trailing off, and mumbling sometimes incomprehensibly. She speaks poignantly here, and contradicts herself there — but it’s unequivocally her. It’s clumsy in the way that only an unrelentingly honest person can be. Del Rey answers the question: she’s not a tortured, delicate soul, nor is she a profit-hungry project. The pop icon is a complex person who could probably use more media training and comes off as out-of-touch more often than not — but she’s also a trailblazing creative.