Lana Del Rey Has Come to Confess on ‘Ocean Blvd’

Photo: Lana Del Rey/Universal Music

Lana Del Rey is a colorful study in contrasts: She’s a quintessentially West Coast presence who spent her formative years in Lake Placid, a Catholic-school kid who blossomed into a songwriter with a flair for the salacious and the macabre, and a pop star whose work evokes not sunny seaside shindigs but harrowing, deadening inertia. Lana is not your chipper, reserved celebrity, either — the kind whose gift for avoiding controversy and unpleasantness should be studied in a lab. In December, she shared photos of a billboard announcing her ninth album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, on her private Instagram account. “There’s only one and it’s in Tulsa,” the caption explained. Her ex, police officer Sean Larkin, lives there. But Ocean Blvd isn’t a breakup record. It’s about healing, opening a new chapter in the oeuvre of an artist who fixates on troubles hiding in plain sight, and the fears and sorrows swirling behind our public masks of contentment. Where past releases pulled you into a world of cinematic ennui and seedy Americana, offering the thrill of a sightseeing tour of Hollywood horrors, this one pierces the enshrouding darkness, seeking solace from pain through companionship and spirituality.

Each Lana Del Rey album is a travelogue of sorts, a constellation of geographical spots where something impactful or unfortunate happened. The Nebraska haze depicted in 2021’s “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” the New York that’s pined for in 2019’s “The Greatest,” the Miami lights gleaming in 2015’s “Salvatore,” and the Las Vegas chaos documented in 2012’s “Off to the Races” push back against a litany of reference points in and around Los Angeles, implying a love-hate relationship with the whole of the San Fernando Valley, a story of opposing urges to escape the city and to later come booming back. Ocean Blvd is steeped largely in West Coast lore — the Beverly Center, the Ramada by Rosemead, and John Lennon and Harry Nilsson’s lost-weekend artifact Pussy Cats come up, to say nothing of the shuttered beach thoroughfare the new album’s title recalls — but what’s mapped out in the sharpest detail are the songwriter’s greatest fears and the sources of strength that keep them at bay. Opener “The Grants” cuts to the quick of the core concerns here: “My pastor told me / When you leave / All you take is your memory.” Backed by a choir, Lana promises to carry her love for her niece and grandmother to the afterlife. The balance of religion, Disney orchestration, and family are key themes throughout Ocean Blvd, where petty mortal worries get burned for kindling piece by piece.

It seems important to Lana to express that she is cutting a noisy path to a quieter life, figuring things out as she goes. “Sweet” pauses during a hookup to muse about the fleeting nature of the connection — “Lately we’ve been making out a lot, not talking about the stuff that’s at the very heart of things” — before resolving to continue to embrace nothingness together. “A&W” suggests that enlightenment involves both knowing yourself and freeing yourself from other people’s lofty standards. “I’m a princess, I’m divisive,” Lana sings. “Maybe I’m just kinda like this.” The verses flip the bird at her detractors while the chorus visits hotel romps that further express that she’s unfazed by years of having every move nitpicked. The seven-minute song is an astute balancing act split almost down the middle between hushed folk and chilly trap — a reminder that she can do acoustic tunes like “Norman Fucking Rockwell” and “Video Games” and beat-oriented pop songs like “Summer Bummer” and “Lust for Life.” “A&W” is poking holes in the old myths about desirability, laughing at the lie that it’s all downhill for us after 30 and the notion that yearning for a physical connection means she needs a man, since he’s the one looking to fill a void in his life.

Ocean Blvd really gets strange in the following track, “Judah Smith Interlude,” in which the controversial Churchome pastor whose services Lana visits from time to time delivers a sermon about the uselessness of chasing nice things. (It sounds like she snuck a portable recorder into a service. You hear commentary from women both absorbing and chuckling at the celebrity preacher’s charismatic, if surreal, dispatches: “I woke up this morning, and God said, ‘Check the Bible app.’” “At some point tonight before you go to bed, go, ‘Yo, Elohim,’ and he’ll hear. ‘You’re the best artist ever.’”) Ocean Blvd delights in these dualities — in the chain hotel in the affluent neighborhood, in trap beats rolling into sad folk songs like sunlight burning through clouds, in following the self-deprecating poise of “Fishtail” (“I’m not that smart, but I’ve got things to say”) with the boasts in the surf-rap Tommy Genesis collab “Peppers” (“Me and my boyfriend listen to the Chili Peppers / We write hit songs without trying, like / All the time, all the time”), and in the pastor denouncing lust after the singer has darkly intoned, “This is what it feels like to be an American whore.”

The work past Lana albums have put into prodding American pop culture is turned inward as Ocean Blvd gets free from the carnal concerns of “Sweet,” “A&W,” and “Candy Necklace” and dives into musings on grief, mortality, and coping mechanisms backed by little more than shimmering swells of strings, guitars, and pianos. In the middle of the album, the chilling “Kintsugi,” “Fingertips,” and “Paris, Texas” face tragedy with shattering candor. The first song opens with a pang of guilt about being unavailable during a series of family emergencies, then picks apart the way Lana processes painful experiences (“I’m in the mountains / I’m probably running away from the feelings”) before arriving at grizzled optimism gleaned from Japanese pottery repair. “Fingertips” expresses how the anxieties about mortality voiced in “Kintsugi” extend to her loved ones: “Charlie, stop smoking / Caroline, will you be with me? / Will the baby be all right?” “Paris, Texas” name-checks the classic Wim Wenders road flick and reworks folk-pop singer-songwriter SYML’s 2020 moody instrumental “I Wanted to Leave” as Lana sings about heeding the urge to make a run for it and how it abates the loneliness waiting back at home: “I had to leave / Knew they wouldn’t understand.”

Draped in acoustic instruments reverberating with a churchlike echo, these admissions, coupled with lines about suicidal ideations in “Candy Necklace” and “Margaret,” feel like confessions. She’s systematically letting go of her darkest inklings and least inspiring acquaintances, closing ranks and ditching excess baggage, nourishing her mind and soul while having second thoughts about what her body craves. (“This music is about thought processing,” Lana told Billboard this year. “I’m definitely living from the neck up.”) Stripping down arrangements and getting unnervingly diaristic about pain puts the spotlight on the pen and not the stickiness of the grooves. Ocean Blvd manages a smoother blend of delicate pop and hip-hop accents over plush folk than the too-slick Born to Die and the sometimes delightfully zany Blue Banisters.

Ocean Blvd’s cleverest inversion is turning all of this sorrow into a message of hope. Lana’s one of our most successful writers of breakup songs, because the best ones suspend us in moments of totalizing angst like still lifes of houses in disrepair. This album’s doing something else, suggesting that all that moroseness is temporary, and, as “Kintsugi” advises, cracks in our veneer create spaces for light to take hold. Near the end of the album, “Margaret” flips the “When you know, you know” refrain “Paris, Texas” uses to cover the motives for skipping out on places and people, instead underscoring a promise that it’s okay to feel lost and confused and to weave through a jagged, arduous path toward maturity: “If you don’t know, don’t give up / ’Cause you never know what the new day might bring / Maybe you’ll know tomorrow.”

These remembrances of relatives and anxiety spirals about what the future holds are really about making sure we leave something of substance behind when we’re gone. The curiosity in “Kintsugi” about whether anyone will remember Lana’s music the way the teen in the third verse knows Scottish folks songs, the fixation on memory in “The Grants,” the cosmic concerns that come up briefly in “Sweet,” the Churchome sermon, and the dilapidated tunnel the album’s named after are all circling the same question: What are you doing that will resonate after you’re gone, whom will it resonate for, and how are you rewiring your life to make sure your time goes to them, not to whatever bullshit is said behind your back or whomever you yearn for who doesn’t feel the same way? You don’t have to know now. Ocean Blvd makes that clear. Lana Del Rey is right there with you looking for an answer.

2023-03-27 14:16:44