Lana Del Rey: Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd (Interscope) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, March 2nd, 2024  

Lana Del Rey

Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd

Interscope

Apr 12, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


There was, once, a long pathway with mosaic ceilings and caramel tiles lined along both the floors and terracotta walls of the underground entrance into the shore in Long Beach, CA. This was the tunnel under Ocean Blvd., a promenade animated by vendors and screaming children with floaties on their arms and sunscreen blotches on their noses. Although the tunnel was sealed off in the mid-’60s, the architecture still stands. This historical passage, and all its memories, are buried beneath the Californian hillsides, hidden in plain sight and waiting, patiently, decade after decade, to be reopened and let back into the light.

Lana Del Rey’s career is similarly labyrinthine—her words become twisted; her sound confounds; she drifts through critical discourse at an angle so sharp it’s amazing she’s never toppled over. Perhaps this is why she is so intimately present, and public, in her ninth studio album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, she’s here to ground herself. I try (with all my might) to avoid defining an album as someone’s “most personal,” as I believe it is nearly impossible to write an album devoid of self — can a (good) songwriter refrain from being diaristic? Yet, Did you know is self-identified as such. The 77-minute album gets to the “stuff at the very heart of things,” as she says on “Sweet.” These things include family, grief and loss, life and death, and, of course, sex and love. None of this is necessarily new to Del Rey, but Did you know’s postmodernist lens feels as if she is handing you a map out of the tunnel of her past—through her career and life as we know it —and into the light; into her real world.

Did you know is not only a preventative measure, but is also a respite. When Del Rey debuted in 2012 with Born to Die critics were quick to call bullshit. Her femme fatale, old Hollywood mien rendered her a dilettante, a retro cosplayer, some kind of perverse Nancy Sinatra who listened to a lot of Lil’ Wayne and did not have a good relationship with her father. It didn’t matter that the nascent, Tumblr sweetheart inspired PacSun’s display of flower crowns and heart-shaped glasses, or that she essentially instituted a new vanguard of alternative-pop whisper vocalists. No, it didn’t matter the incredible cult—notably queer—following she accrued, or how high the album landed on the Billboard chart. When women fetishize themselves their authority is almost always immediately questioned. Why does she get to say this? Isn’t she supposed to be a feminist? Seriously, how could she?

It’s no wonder she was uncertain if she might ever write a song again or that she said she “wished she was dead.” How easily it must be to turn into a depressed misanthrope when the “deciders” of culture are declaring your sexual earnestness fraudulent. Nevertheless, Del Rey continued to write, though never really healing from her early criticisms. Despite releasing a slew of heavily fan-adored albums—Ultraviolence, Lust For Life, and Honeymoon—it wasn’t really until 2019 when the incredible Norman Fucking Rockwell! granted Del Rey unanimous mass critical respect. Perhaps the exchange of trap-pop for Americana folk songs and piano ballads was a more accessible, ubiquitous move, definitively a less risqué one. Goddamn, I guess it takes a Jack Antonoff cosign to finally be regarded as a poet and not a heretic.

And Did you know not only brings back Antonoff, but so too the piano ballads, as they make up over 80 percent of the LP. So if Norman Fucking Rockwell! didn’t convert you to Del Reyism, Did you know probably won’t either.

So while Del Rey is still the same sepia-tinted, sun-soaked American aesthete that she once was, there are real lifetime stamps all over Did you know that conjure a biographical sincerity, instigating a personal closeness. And what’s the best way to see the real someone? Maybe contextualize them a bit? You meet their family. So, that’s what Del Rey does; she introduces her lineage on the first track, the gospel ballad “The Grants,” her family’s surname.

The first voices heard on the album are those of an a cappella trio made up of Melodye Perry, Pattie Howard, and Shikena Jones. They begin with the song’s refrain: “I’m gonna take mine of you with me.” They’re talking about memories, indicating some sort of loss right from the get. “I’m doin’ it for us, for our family line,” Del Rey adds. She’s taking her “sister’s first born child;” she’s taking her “grandmother’s last smile,” so that she can remind herself that “it’s a beautiful life;” so that she remembers where she came from. So you can know the real her.

“Fingertips” is perhaps the most explicit familial track with mentions of her mother, father, and brother, as well as her deceased family; her grandmother, grandfather, and uncle David. One of the more string-heavy tracks, Del Rey delivers what she calls an “unfiltered” lyrical performance as verses appear quickly, shimmering from a stream of consciousness realization that she is still, regretfully, human and mortal (i.e. a real person). She’ll return to being your “serene queen,” but right now she needs “two seconds to breathe. Two seconds to be me,” and mourn her loses.

Similar messages appear on ballad “Kintsugi” named after the Japanese art form of putting broken pieces back together with gold. This is just a method, but also a philosophy that regards breakage, and in turn, repair, as part of the history of an object, rather than a shameful blemish or scar.

In “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” she asks her deceased grandfather for protection and somehow also simultaneously refutes the old rumor that she is an “industry plant,” (“I know they think that it took somebody else to make me beautiful/As they intended me to be/But they’re wrong”). Instead of “Some big men behind the scenes sewing Frankenstein black dreams into [her] songs,” what makes Del Rey who she really is, is her family, The Grants. “If you don’t believe me, my poetry, or my melodies, Feel it in your bones,” she commands.

Del Rey isn’t only guided by her family, she is also commanded by the spiritual, as she includes not one, but two gospel interludes. One is a fluttering, mostly instrumental electro-jazz track from composer Jon Batiste, while the other is what must be an iPhone recording of a Judah Smith sermon. She quite literally takes you to church, giggling and murmuring in agreement as Smith dissects the Book of Psalms. The interlude ends on a potent note, one that characterizes the musical evolution of Del Rey: “I used to think my preaching was mostly about you,” says Smith. “And you’re not gonna like this, but I’m gonna tell you the truth: I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me.”

Did you know is, in essence, that exact discovery. It’s Del Rey’s own self-referential coming-to-Jesus moment where she finally begins to accept, and then mock, all her past criticisms and false characterizations. She knows who you think she is; she knows what you think of her. And so what?

Lead single “A&W” is the apotheosis of this self-reclamation as her transformation can be summed up with just these two lines from the chorus: “It’s not about havin’ someone to love me anymore/This is the experience of bein’ an American whore.” In all honesty, it’s also probably one of her best songs to date.

The seven-minute track comes in two parts. First, a ballad with sweet, delicate strings. She quickly sets the I-don’t-give-a-fuck-anymore tone, singing “Look at me, look at the length of my hair, and my face, the shape of my body/Do you really think I give a damn what I do after years of just hearing them talking?” She then states she’s watching the film The Diary of a Teenage Girl— a movie about a teen that begins a sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend—which makes her wonder “what went wrong.” It’s clearly a subtle jab at her most prominent criticism: she romanticizes abuse and sexual perversion. Maybe so, but isn’t that just the experience of an American whore?

She carries on repeating all the names she’s been called: “a princess,” “divisive.” She even addresses her so-called “persona:” “maybe I’m just like this,” she defends. Female icons are often expected to be clean, sweet, and appeasing. But it’s too late, she’s already “fucked up her story,” and ruined her own reputation so she might as well embrace it. So here you go: this is the experience of an American whore.

The chorus then repeats, getting more distorted until suddenly: we’re in the second act. A midi-drum comes in and we’re back to her trap-pop days, yet another decision she was routinely criticized for. Drone-y sounds swirl around her pitched-down ad-libs, synths creep in threateningly until a cackle slips out and a new verse ensues. She sings about “Jimmy” who only loves her when “he wants to get high.” She even told his mom that he’s “fucking up big time.” But it’s okay, because, well, she’s “already lost her mind.”

This second act breach in “A&W” is a knowing submission. It’s as if she’s just giving into herself and accepting her role as the American whore, happily. In fact, the album closes with the only other “trap-pop” tracks—and the only real upbeat, “dance” songs—cultivating a frillier, more boisterous sound. It was as if she went on a long-winded tangent and returned ludic and blithe. She’s come out of the tunnel of grief steady and firm. Lighter, perhaps.

This lightness is evident as “Fishtail” applies a slow, seductive midi loop while an Auto-Tuned Del Rey wishes she could “skinny-dip inside [her lover’s] mind.” “Peppers” interpolates the Tommy Genesis track “Angelina,” using the rather ludicrous refrain: “Hands on your knees, I’m Angelina Jolie.” It doesn’t make any real sense, but Del Rey doesn’t care. She’s audibly giggling and chatting in the background of the track. She is reveling in the experience of being feminine, sexy, and at the mercy of love and lust, much like how she did in Born to Die. But now, she’s having fun doing it.

Perhaps this is why she ends with “Taco Truck x VB,” a track that features the “grimy, heavy, original, and unheard version” of Norman Fucking Rockwell’s “Venice Bitch.” The song’s lyrics are mundane and silly. She asks her boyfriend to “pass her the vape,” stating that when she gets down she’s “bonita,” which is why she’s called “Lanita”—nobody calls her that—but she ends “Taco Truck” with this unworried line: “Before you talk, let me stop what you’re saying/I know, I know, I know that you hate me.” And even so, she still continues to dance as the “grimmy” version of “Venice Bitch” closes out the LP.

In all, Did you know is a recalibration, an unloading of the past and an uploading of what’s on her mind, right now. Is this “response” album necessary a decade later? I think so; she doesn’t want to be sealed off from her music, from her own legacy. There is so much mythology around Del Rey, she often feels impossibly unreal. I like to think of her as that one friend who is a bit messy, always talking your ear off about her sexual escapades. She might annoy you at times, but she’s unlike any other person you know—and she’s always entertaining. Here is a woman talking rather poetically about actually liking sex while also recognizing its complications and its beauty. It takes some kind of bravery to admit that you desire. And can you really desire without a little bit of suffering? Lana Del Rey is audacious enough to concede that yes, she does a fair share of both. And yes, that makes her human. This is the experience of an American Whore. And it sounds like this: bang, bang, kiss, kiss. (www.lanadelrey.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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