The first we hear from Lana Del Rey on her new song “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is a deep breath. Over a swell of strings, Lana takes a brief inhale, followed by an extended exhale as if she’s doing meditation. She’s preparing herself to sing one of the most subtly devastating songs of her career, one that pioneered the sad girl sound that many have copied but none have surpassed. “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. It’s also quite possibly her best. As she whispers at the end of the second verse, “Oh man…”
Oh man, indeed.
“Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” opens with that exact question, as Lana lyrically compares herself to Long Beach’s Jergins Tunnel, a 1927-built mosaic-lined pathway to the beach that was shuttered in 1967. This is almost a parody of Lana, Our Lady of Southern California, with an overarching metaphor wholly centered on West Coast geography. Her body is a map of LA, as she sang on “Arcadia” off her previous album Blue Banisters. Yet, instead of her hips being every high- and byway in the sprawl of Los Angeles, she’s equating her body and soul with this long-forgotten tunnel. “Handmade beauty, sealed up by two man-made walls,” she sings.
The song continues with the subsequent two verses also depicting similarly haunting scenes. Next, we have a girl singing The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” a song she has referenced previously on Honeymoon’s “God Knows I Tried.” This girl, according to Lana, isn’t all that into The Eagles, but instead, chooses the song because she inhabits her own fantasy of the past as if trapped in amber. She’s twirling like Twin Peaks’ Audrey Horne–or Lana’s own infamous SNL performance–in her own little world that few understand: “It’s because she’s in a world preserved, only few have found the door.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume Lana is singing about herself here. Or really, Lizzy Grant, that girl making strange anachronistic videos splicing together vintage mid-20th century archival footage and lip-synching in Party City wigs in front of her trailer’s blinds.
Finally, Lana invokes singer Harry Nilsson’s song “Don’t Forget Me,” the title line she borrowed for this exact song, and the point in which “his voice breaks at 2:05.” As if her entire song wasn’t gloomy enough, some background about the recording of “Don’t Forget Me” and that doomed voice crack adds an extra dose of tragic context. Spiraling in self-destruction, Nilsson’s vocal range began to deteriorate by 1973, culminating in a vocal cord that ruptured during a shit show jam session with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Danny Kortchmar, and others. Continuing to record with Lennon, Nilsson hid his vocal injury, which, of course, only made things worse and restricted his upper range for good. This oral obliteration is observable on the 1974 album Pussy Cats which includes “Don’t Forget Me.” Another instance of beauty erased.
But in this last verse, Lana takes her association with Nilsson, as well as Lennon, even further, imagining them as ideal friends. Ones that could whisper to her: “Come on, baby, you can thrive,” as if she’s a kitten. She follows this up with a knife twist: “But I can’t,” putting extra emphasis on that T, a covertly bitter delivery of that line that belies the hurt and anguish that pervades the song. Damn, Lana.
In between these three verses, all with their own distinctive imagery, Lana pleads, “When’s it going to be my turn?” as if she’s Mia Goth’s Pearl shouting, “I’m a STAAAAR” at her failed audition. By the second chorus, Lana implores, “Don’t forget me!” Repeatedly returning the song to the forgotten tunnel under Ocean Blvd, she searches for salvation—no, not in herself. This is Lana after all—but in another person. Someone who can open her up like the tunnel, and, in a line that reads as a throwback to the classic Lana Del Rey female fragility that had all the critics clutching their pearls in the early 2010s (not as if critics are more accepting now of unempowered women. Hello, Blonde!), “Fuck me to death. Love me until I love myself.”
It’s not only the lyrics that harken back to earlier years of Lana’s musical output. The song is as if she’s managed to combine all of her previous incarnations into one. The lyrical Laurel Canyon 1970s folk fixation of the past three albums hasn’t disappeared entirely (some parts of “Did you know…” sound almost exactly like “If You Lie Down With Me” from Blue Banisters). But more so than the stripped-back atmosphere of, say, Chemtrails Over The Country Club or the sun-kissed Golden State vibe of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, “Did you know…” is densely layered with strings, piano, synth bass, saxophone, clarinet, and backing vocalists, with a rich production that brings forward certain instruments in various parts, making for a dreamy and hallucinatory listening experience. With this fuller orchestral sound and, thank Christ, some real drums, the song is a throwback to 2015’s cinematic Honeymoon, Lana’s most criminally underrated album that I consider perhaps the pinnacle of her ill-fated Hollywood sonic landscapes. Her voice, too, has lost some of the trilling clarity that began to grate, particularly on her one-off song “Watercolor Eyes,” on the soundtrack for the show Euphoria. Instead, she’s back in her lower register, which disintegrates towards the end of the song into a kind of quaalude-slurring, which pairs quite nicely with her forthcoming 2023 album’s Valley of the Dolls cover.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Emily, you’re a Lana fanatic. Of course, you love this song. Look, I’m not completely uncritical when it comes to Lana. For instance, I know I’ll be banished from the upper echelons of idol worship, but I didn’t entirely love Blue Banisters. Though some of the songs saw her reaching new lyrical heights like “Arcadia,” a mixture of self-mythology and grievance that I, as a Nick Cave fan, particularly respond to, the album itself was a mish-mash of old B-sides and new songs that didn’t quite gel cohesively, especially in contrast to the thematically tight “Wild At Heart” road album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club. Blue Banisters just felt rushed and for what? It was her second album in a year. Yet, I hoped Blue Banisters would be a transitionary album, eventually leading to a better, fresher sound.
Well, if “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is any indication, my dreams were realized. The last time a Lana song captivated me with this intensity was “White Dress,” from the aforementioned Chemtrails, a song I find so transfixing that I once took a hard knee-skinning tumble when running while listening, transported to a different world. “White Dress” showcases a longing to return to the simpler days of being a waitress in a white dress at 19, a kind of nostalgia for one’s own more uncomplicated, unfamous youth. Like “White Dress,” “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” also looks backward—to Jergins Tunnel, to The Eagles, to Harry Nilson. And yet the wistful romanticism has disappeared, replaced by a gut-wrenching, gnawing desperation. “Don’t forget me!”
Shockingly, one of the only analyses of the song I’ve come across is by Pitchfork, which oddly seems to think of the song as some breezy overture to finding the mystery in the hidden. As Sam Sodomsky writes, “And speaking of that title, the tunnel she’s singing about—with ‘mosaic ceilings, painted tiles on the wall’—is less a geographic focal point than a window into the potential she sees in the most familiar scenes and well-traveled routes. There is magic in the everyday, she suggests. But first you have to listen closely.” Uh. I don’t know. To me, “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is so sublimely dark that I could be convinced we’re going to find Lana’s skeleton in that sealed-up tunnel, having died in 1967, and her ghost has been releasing her music ever since. Her music has always felt like a transmission from the beyond.
But that ghoulish reading aside, “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” reminds me of something Anita Lane, haunted ginger Victorian doll, founding member of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave’s ex-partner, and proto-Lana, once said, horrifying a journalist by describing her death drive motivations for recording her EP Dirty Sings. She explains, “I didn’t want to be on a pedestal on the record. I wanted to talk to other girls. I kind of wanted to glorify insecurity rather than being confident and successful. I wanted some kind of equality between the emotions that are raised up for people to look at. I felt that I was going to die and I wanted to leave something behind as a suicide note I guess.” Like Anita’s aural suicide note, “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is a startling work of vulnerability—a raw masterpiece of feeling forgotten, of aging, of neediness, of insecurity, of being left behind, of loneliness, all emotions that most people are not comfortable with generally, but certainly rarely in song.
When’s it gonna be my turn to … die? fade into obscurity like the tunnel? wreck her talent and lose it? be devoured by fame? Crikey, Lana, had you been around in my teens, I’m not sure you would have done me much good at all. Adults-only listening. You need to have lived auite a bit (and survived the living) to be able to hold this in all its poignancy.