America Is Doomed / Music

Wild At Heart And Weird On Top: Searching For Freedom In Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over The Country Club”

Sailor: Too bad he couldn’t visit that old Wizard of Oz, and get some good advice.
Lula: Too bad we all can’t baby.
–”Wild At Heart”

If Lana Del Rey’s music had to be defined by one drive (other than driving fast), it would be the pursuit of freedom. Inextricably tied to the failed promise of America, Lana’s conception of freedom is lawless, wild, and always elusive. She perhaps best articulates this search for freedom at the end of the monologue that opens her “Ride” video (which I’ll remind you, dearest readers, I expect to have recited at my funeral). After admitting she was “born to be the other woman,” she reveals her “obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn’t even talk about it and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness that both dazzled and dizzied me.” Of course, this monologue sees Lana in character as the road dog-loving queen of the gas station living life on the open road. And yet, like her many incarnations, this obsession for freedom is also Lana’s own, traversing her sonic landscape from the final “I am fucking crazy, but I am free” in “Ride” to her move out of the black and into the blue on Lust for Life’s “Get Free.”

While this freedom fixation fills Lana’s previous output, she never fully inhabited being pushed to a “nomadic point of madness” until her newest album Chemtrails Over The Country Club, which was released last month. On Chemtrails, Lana seeks freedom in the memories of her 19-year-old self, at her “Tulsa Jesus Freak”’s ranch, on the road in Lincoln, Nebraska, while avoiding becoming a cautionary tale like Tammy Wynette and George Jones, and while dancing the Louisiana two-step after-hours. As she tells Jack Antonoff, who produced Chemtrails, along with her previous Norman Fucking Rockwell!, in Interview Magazine, the album is “not so much where I’ve been, but more like where I’m going.”

Though some might argue, Chemtrails, at least to me, may be Lana’s most cohesive album, if not one of her greatest. Even Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the album that finally got misogynistic critics who slammed her since her emergence in the early 2010s to cave and recognize her talent, had tracks that didn’t quite fit, namely “The Next Best American Record.” Ironically, Chemtrails is a mishmash of songs from a range of eras in Lana’s recording history. While the earliest may be “Let Me Love You Like A Woman,” which was supposedly written around 2014’s Ultraviolence, many of the songs’ genesis date around the Norman Fucking Rockwell! era, including “Dark But Just A Game.” Then, there’s “Yosemite,” which stands out as the only song produced by Rick Nowels, recorded in one take for Lust For Life.

Yet, despite the mixed-up timeline (though Lana seems to continually rework songs and poems from other eras), there’s a newfound maturity and assuredness to her songwriting that surpasses the previous albums. For instance, “Yosemite,” with a guitar riff straight out of Leonard Cohen, may be one of her best written lyrics, including the half-spoken bridge that had me paging through my mental rolodex of Nick Cave’s lyrics as Lana’s question “How deep was the canyon that you came from?” sounds just like a description of earth-shattering love that would appear on Let Love In or The Boatman’s Call.

But more than simply the songwriting itself, Chemtrails is a fully-formed album with a clear theme and vision. Even though Lana doesn’t seem to recognize it. As she explained to Mojo Magazine, “It wasn’t so much that I thought the songs fantastically fit together with like seamless, sunkissed production–but you know, there’s a life lived there.” Though I’d hate to counter our blessed mother, I disagree.

The tip of the hat to its consistent thematic vision may be the song “Wild At Heart” with its title taken from Lynch’s 1990 film of the same title, as well as the 1989 novel on which it’s based by Barry Gifford. Along with her groaning cover of “Blue Velvet,” “Wild At Heart” makes her career-long link to David Lynch obvious (it’s also present in the tinny vocal effects on “Yosemite”’s bridge that mirrors some of Lynch’s own forays into music. Strange what love does, indeed). Lana’s self-constructed world is very much reflected within the film Wild At Heart: bad men, the open road, Elvis, the Wizard of Oz, trauma, car crashes, and she did duet “Wicked Game” with Chris Isaak at the Hollywood Bowl in 2019.

In Lynch on Lynch, Lynch describes this film as “a road picture, a love story, a psychological drama, and a violent comedy. A strange blend of all those things.” Like the film, Chemtrails is a road album, specifically a meandering hunt for freedom. This builds on the yearning for escapism–dancing, throwing a party, or in the backseat in the arms of a lover–that filled Norman Fucking Rockwell!. On Chemtrails, though, Lana isn’t simply driving a newly bought truck in the middle of the night to spend time with her bar-t-t-tender in Long Beach. She’s on the run, as she sings at the beginning of the album’s title track.

The album is filled with imagery of movement and not necessarily a decisive sense of direction either. “Dance Till We Die”’s whispered “We keep it movin’ babe” is coupled with the belted imagery of being “used to rollin’ like a rollin’ stone.” This directionlessness is most clearly articulated on the saccharine songbird-like chorus of “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” in which Lana repeats “Not all those who wander are lost…it’s just wanderlust.” Apparently, “Not all those who wander are lost” is from J.R.R. Tolkien, but I associate it more with Middle American kitsch art sold at Marshalls next to signs that say “It’s Wine O’Clock,” “Love Lives Here,” or “Live Love Laugh.” Yet, this is just another instance of Lana turning Americana–and this type of schlock is our American folk art–into poetry.

This nod to Middle America isn’t a fluke (though if you follow Lana on Instagram, you’d know she has a particular affinity for this type of cheesy aesthetic, which I find wholly endearing). Previously, Lana’s songs have inhabited a pretty restricted terrain: New York City, occasionally Miami, and Los Angeles, in, well, just about everything else. Ever since the Queen of Coney Island abandoned the East Coast, Lana and LA have become synonymous. Chemtrails, though, marks a change. Rather than beckoning listeners to “Come to California and be a freak like me” as she did on Honeymoon’s “Freak,” she’s telling us, “I’m ready to leave LA and I want you to come” on “Let Me Love You Like A Woman.”

And leave LA she does. Nebraska. Yosemite. Tulsa. Orlando. Arkansas. Berkley. San Francisco. Not merely a lyrical tour of the American heartland, plus other parts of California beyond Los Angeles, Chemtrails is also a sonic departure. Here, Lana abandons both the high cinematic glamour of Hollywood and the stoned surfer groove of Long Beach, Marina Del Rey, and Venice Beach on Norman Fucking Rockwell! for a more stripped-back folk and even country sound, reflective of her recent tours around the Midwest and trips to Nashville and Texas with country singer Nikki Lane (who appears on the duet “Breaking Up Slowly”).

Though Lana may be exploring another facet of Americana music with an airy and eerie Karen Dalton quality as if it arrived from another universe, she hasn’t completely cast aside her obsessions; rather, it’s just an expansion of their geography. There’s still a sense of doomed wealth. I mean, the album’s title and its eponymous track describe blankly staring at wild-eyed conspiracy theories zipping over country clubs. There are still meta moments, including the reused yet improved jingle-bell melody from Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s “How To Disappear” in “Wild At Heart,” jolting uses of contemporary vocal effects as in the Autotune in “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” and numerous references to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” which also appeared on “Mariner’s Apartment Complex.” Of course, there are ill-fated romances with toxic men and a dash of regressive femininity just to anger the wokes. And there’s also maybe the most quintessential Lana lyric in her oeuvre: “So I smoke cigarettes just to understand the smog.”

Additionally, Chemtrails tangles with the trappings of fame, which is certainly no stranger to Lana’s other albums either. Fame, in Lana-land, is always treacherous, imbued with a romantic fatalism. There’s no shortage of that on Chemtrails either. As she sings on “Wild At Heart,” “The cameras have flashes. They cause the car crashes.” However, there’s a twist, as she follows this ominous warning with: “But I’m not a star.”

On Chemtrails, Lana openly rejects fame as a burden (“burdened by the weight of fame,” as she says on “Dance Till We Die”), finding it fall short of her expectations. The psychedelic song with its layered vocals “Dark But Just A Game” most explicitly delves into the dangerous side of fame with references to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and lyrics such as:

“The faces aren’t the same, but their stories all end tragically
(Sweet or whatever, baby)
And that’s the price of fame
A tale as old as time you’d be (Sweet or whatever, baby)”

The song was inspired by a party that both Lana and Jack attended hosted by newfound political street artist/Instagram’s Norma Desmond Madonna and Guy Oseary. Lana recounts: “Something happened, kind of like a situation — never meet your idols. And I just thought, ‘I think it’s interesting that the best musicians end up in such terrible places’. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to try my best not to change because I love who I am’. I said ‘Jack, it’s dark’. And he said ‘Well, it’s dark— but it’s just a game’”

“Dark But Just A Game” sees Lana respond to this alarming meeting with an idol (Was it Madonna? It was Madonna, wasn’t it) by both deciding not to change and admitting she doesn’t even want celebrity (“Don’t even want what’s mine much less the fame”). But more than simply a rejection of fame, she also looks back to her beginnings. As she sings, “I was a pretty little thing and God, I loved to sing. But nothing came from either one but pain.” Then, she resigns herself: “But fuck it.”

Looking back to her younger self and rekindling her earlier passion for music just for creativity’s sake is another place where Lana seeks freedom on the album. She tells Mojo Magazine, “…I didn’t get famous ‘til I was, like, 27 and until then, I sang for less than free. And I loved it. I really was that girl who was pure of soul. I didn’t give a fuck.” This freedom in creativity extends throughout the album, concluding with the updated 2021 Laurel Canyon fantasy of Zella Day, Lana, and Weyes Blood singing a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free,” which contrasts a street performer playing for free and the singer who plays for fortune.

The first track “White Dress,” however, most strikingly and viscerally examines the freedom of creativity and expression that Lana felt at 19 when she was just “a waitress wearing a white dress.” The song may be Lana’s as-of-yet career masterpiece and is certainly one of her strongest vocal performances, even as she wavers precariously above her register to represent the youth and promise of this 19-year-old singer “down at the Men in Music Business Conference.” With vocals that are both fragile and brittle, her rushed vocal performance is reminiscent of both Kate Bush and Tori Amos, layered over piano and some jazz elements that remind me of certain parts of David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. And yet despite these allusions, the song is still pure Lana Del Rey: tear-jerking nostalgia, the end of summer, references to The White Stripes and Kings of Leon.

But what makes “White Dress” stand out is her heartbreaking lyrical honesty. Repeating “Look how I do this, look how I got this” and “made me feel like a God,” she reflects on her former confidence, before, finally, reaching back down to her normal register, admitting: “It kinda makes me feel, like maybe I was better off.” Lana has always cloaked her experiences within some type of fiction. On “White Dress,” though, this is Elizabeth Grant looking back on a now-unobtainable part of her life when she “felt free ‘cause I was only nineteen.”

“White Dress” is not the only song on Chemtrails that reaches back to Lana’s earlier days as the platinum blonde Lizzy Grant living in a trailer park or her May Jailer folk days. References to these earlier incarnations haunt the album. For instance, the verses of “Dark But Just A Game,” in particular, sound as if she should be singing them in a homemade video in front of Venetian blinds while wearing heart-shaped glasses (she did make a homemade video to “Let Me Love You Like A Woman). Lyrics from earlier unreleased songs are also peppered throughout, including “Wild At Heart”’s “I love you lots like polka dots,” which echoes her “I like you lots like polka dots” from her earlier “Put the Radio On.”

However, Lana not only finds freedom in the creativity she once knew, but also within a community of other women musicians. Beyond her collaborations on the album with Nikki Lane, Zella Day, and Weyes Blood, all of whom she allows to take center stage on their songs, she also places herself within a lineage on “Dance Till We Die”:

“I’m coverin’ Joni and I’m dancin’ with Joan
Stevie is callin’ on the telephone
Court almost burned down my home
But God, it feels good not to be alone”

Courtney!

But freedom in Lana-land is more than just playing music for free or dancing the Afro-Caribbean two-step with Joan Baez. It’s also an internalized and intangible sense of wildness. In Jack Halberstam’s Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (yes, I know all you academic bores will be horrified that I’m connecting this to Lana. Deal with it), Jack describes, “Wildness has no goal, no point of liberation that beckons off in the distance, no shape that must be assumed, no outcome that must be desired. Wildness, instead, disorders desire and desires disorder.” In Lana’s music, wildness has no desired outcome either and like freedom, with which it’s tightly wound in Lana’s universe, it flows through her creative output, from the initial “walk on the wild side” reference on “Born to Die” to “American”’s “You make me crazy, you make me wild.” Wildness also appears in numerous unreleased songs from “Wild On You” to the recently discovered “Wild One,” which features the lyrics:

“I’m wild, I’m free
No man can handle me
I write, I sing
Freedom’s my love, God is my king
I’m a wild one”

This prior declaration of wildness pairs nicely with her similar assertion on Chemtrails’ title song, asserting “I’m not unhinged or unhappy, I’m just wild” and later “I’m not bored or unhappy, I’m still so strange and wild.” Though the lyrics of “Chemtrails” are very strange and, well, wild with numerous angles with which to analyze, from the safety of wealth while pondering conspiracies or her lame boyfriend that doesn’t want to do astrology, the song ultimately reflects the desire to both have a domestic life of “deep normality” while maintaining inner wildness. Similar to poems such as “Bare Feet on Linoleum” from her collection Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, “Chemtrails Over The Country Club” features a litany of mundane imagery–meeting for coffee at an elementary school, the Brentwood Market, or wearing jewelry in a swimming pool. My favorite, though, may be when she begins reciting her her to-do list–“Washing my hair, doing the laundry”–as the music swells. And yet, she’s still “drag racing my little red sports car.”

Recently, Lana got in trouble (again) for discussing her views of wildness in reference to the low-class Capitol insurrection on BBC One. She said, “They want to wild out somewhere. And it’s like we don’t know how to find a way to be wild in our world. And at the same time, the world is so wild.” She’s not the only one to think so. In the song “Hollywood” on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen, Nick sings, “There’s little room for wonder now and little room for wildness too.” On both the song “Chemtrails” and the album, Lana is trying to make room for both. And in some ways, “Chemtrails” is the opposite of the wildness found in songs like “Born To Die” or “Ride.” This isn’t finding freedom in the life of the outlaw, but maintaining wildness even in domesticity. Our girl is wild at heart.

In Lynch on Lynch, David Lynch describes Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage)’s relationship in Wild at Heart: “So they were side by side in this strange world, being themselves and being comfortable with each other being themselves. So I saw this as a really modern romance in a violent world– a picture about finding love in hell.” And we see this on Chemtrails too. While the world might be wild at heart and weird on top, there’s not only a sense of infinite love (“We’ll be white hot forever,” on “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” for instance), but also a comfort in being herself–wild and free. Lana asserts who she is, like it or not:

“If you love me, you’ll love me
‘Cause I’m wild, wild at heart
If they love me, they’ll love me
‘Cause I’m wild, wild at heart”

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