That’s How the Light Gets In: Lana Del Rey Cracks Open Her Best Album Yet

Every time a paparazzi photograph of Lana Del Rey leaving the mega-church Churchome in Beverly Hills made its way across my Instagram scroll, I rolled my eyes. Not because I was clutching my pearls at Churchome pastor Judah Smith’s previous homophobic comments (unsurprising). Not because it’s also Justin Bieber’s post-Hillsong refuge (who cares). Not even because I’m a kneejerk trash religiosity skeptic (it’s our national American pastime). It’s because I imagined Churchome to be one of those unbearably “cool” mega-churches, filled with light Christian rock and try-hard accessible preaching geared towards millennials. Ye-uck! But, after listening to the fifth track on Lana Del Rey’s new album Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, boy, was I off the mark! This spoken word track features Smith mid-hollering rant sounding like a young fire and brimstone Jim Jones (I’ve listened enough to know!). Where do I sign up?! Hallelujah! Praise be!

“Judah Smith Interlude” overlays haunting piano and guitar instrumentals over Smith’s sermon with Lana giggling and “yeah”-ing and “mmhm”-ing in affirmation in the background like a Peoples Temple-era Debbie Layton (I always suspected Lana’s song “Ultraviolence” was partially inspired by Layton’s Jonestown memoir Seductive Poison). Immediately following “A&W,” which stands for “American Whore,” this interlude could easily be written off as simply slut-shaming shock value, particularly with Smith’s assertions about being a man in love rather than a man in lust. It could also swiftly be brushed away as some ironic Americana aesthetic pose, partially inspired by Ethel Cain’s full embrace of Bible Belt white trash Southern Gothic. Yet, despite rambling about checking the Bible app (whatever that is) and describing God as the “rhino designer,” a phrase that earns an enthusiastic chuckle and repetition from Lana, Smith’s interlude concludes with a razor-sharp articulation of Lana’s ninth album. “I used to think my preaching was mostly about you,” he says. “And you’re not gonna like this, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me.”

Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd (which I’ll just refer to as Ocean Blvd from here on out) is an album about Lana, not you. Like Smith’s sermon, there is some ambiguity within that statement. Who exactly is “you”? For Smith, is it God or the parishioners? For Lana, is it the object of her doomed love songs or us, the listeners? Perhaps both. It’s not as if Lana abandons her bad romance songs entirely on Ocean Blvd, including the autotuned stoned groove of “Fishtail,” in which she repeats: “You wanted me sadder.” This is a line that seems as directed at the audience as it is a boyfriend projecting onto her, contrasted with the more specific, “You took my sadness out of context at the Mariners Apartment Complex” from Norman Fucking Rockwell!.

Rather than giving into the audience’s desire for her to be the permanent proverbial sad girl, Ocean Blvd isn’t sad per se. It is a devastating triumph of raw personal vulnerability and power in conveying herself at her most exposed. Lana also fearlessly delves into topics often shied away from in song: family and heritage, suicide and suicidal ideation, rape and our culture’s treatment of women, and a whole hell of a lot of death and grief. There’s a reason that I kept referring to the first three singles as “dead body songs,” which each seemed as if they were sung by individual corpses. And yes, the album has made me cry more than any other album since Ghosteen.

To be as vulnerable as she is on this album is a stunning achievement for a singer and songwriter who has been accused throughout her career of hiding behind a persona: our Lolita, Queen of Coney Island, the unusual girl with a chameleon soul riding with the Hells Angels. Ocean Blvd portrays Lana unfiltered and unfettered, to her absolute core. Now, this transition doesn’t come from nowhere. Since 2016’s Lust for Life, Lana has sought to lift the veil more and more, letting listeners increasingly into her life without the shroud of Americana fiction. This isn’t to say Lana wasn’t there before. She was. But it was often filtered through layers upon layers of her influences and self-mythologizing. Yet, in the last few albums, we see Lana—or maybe really Elizabeth Grant—a bit more. Her desire to return to a simpler time as a waitress in a white dress on 2021’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Her fraught relationship with her mother in “Wildflower Wildfire,” as well as the breezy ambient mundanity with her friends and sister post-heartbreak on the title song, on 2021’s Blue Banisters.

This all leads up to the great unloading of Ocean Blvd’s “Fingertips,” an admittedly tough listen not only in its lyrical density but in its warbling structureless orchestral monotony produced, and largely played, by Drew Erickson. Yet, the narrative she weaves on “Fingertips” is breathtakingly devastating even though delivered with the twittering tone of a Disney princess. The song opens with a symbolic image of baggage straight out of Hoarders: “When I look back, tracing fingertips over plastic bags” (How many plastic bags do you HAVE?). From there, the song expands to cover her mental health (“It wasn’t my idea the cocktail of things that twist neurons inside”), her uncle’s suicide (“who hung himself real high in the National Park sky”), her grief (“Take you home. I’ll give you a blanket. Your spirit can sit and watch TV by my side”), her teenage suicide attempt (“I wanted to go out like you. Swim with the fishes that he caught on Rhode Island”), dead high school heartthrobs (“Aaron ended up dead and not me”), and her mother (“What kind of mother was she to say I’d end up in institutions?”). With her repetitive vocal stylings, she frequently returns to the image of herself, crying in the shower before going onstage to sing for the Prince of Monaco. She is preparing herself to be the “serene queen.” “I just needed two seconds to be me,” she concludes. That “me” is exactly who we hear in this song, not the serene queen. Of course, “Fingertips” isn’t, shall we say, a bop. But it’s Lana laid bare (which also explains why she’s mostly topless in much of the album photography).

Ocean Blvd is also Lana at her most confrontational lyrically, launching scathing remarks at critics that have dogged her since her Born to Die debut as Lana Del Rey. She’s not only singing about herself, but herself as filtered through what others think about her. “I know they think that it took somebody else to make me beautiful,” she intones on the mouthful of a song “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing.” Later in the same verse, she echoes this manufactured industry plant accusation with, “I know they think that it took thousands of people to put me together again like an experiment. Some big man behind the scenes sewing Frankenstein black dreams into my songs, but they’re wrong.” “Grandfather” is not the only song, though. In “Taco Truck x VB,” she sings, clearly addressing critics who have just listened to the album: “Before you talk, let me stop what you’re saying. I know, I know, I know that you hate me.” Perhaps, my favorite, though is the most subtle within “A&W.” Since Forensic Files wasn’t on, she turns to another who-done-it. mystery: herself. “I’m a princess, I’m divisive. Ask me why, why, why I’m like this,” she questions.

The permanent chip on Lana’s shoulder about criticism is, in some ways, irritating and easy to dismiss for a globally influential songwriter that has stadium pop acts praising her like Taylor Swift and The Weeknd as much as legendary figures like Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez. And yet, if you remember some of the unfairly spewed bile flung her way, particularly by feminist stalwarts in the industry, early on, it’s not completely unwarranted. Here, of course, I’m talking about Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon who launched an ad hominem attack on Lana in her own 2015 memoir Girl in the Band. Responding to Lana’s quip that she’s thinking more about the possibility of space travel than feminism (me too), Gordon wrote, “Today we have someone like Lana Del Rey, who doesn’t even know what feminism is, who believes women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts toward self-destruction, whether it’s sleeping with gross men or getting gang-raped by bikers…Naturally, it’s just a persona. If she really truly believes it’s beautiful when young musicians go out on a hot flame of drugs and depression, why doesn’t she just off herself?” Jesus Christ, Kim. Real feminist.

It took almost 10 years, but Lana’s astonishing seven-minute two-part song “A&W” feels like a direct response to Gordon and many other so-called feminists’ critiques against her Anita Lane-esque embrace of fragility and submission. It’s also ironically perhaps the most feminist song Lana has ever written. With a swirl of hypnotic piano that in itself feels like a throwback to singer-songwriters of the 1990s like Tori Amos, the first half of the song is set in a dingy hotel room mid-love affair with Lana’s vocals presented in an alienated monotone that, in some ways, mimics Gordon’s own. This flat, slurred tone makes lines like, “It’s not about having someone to love me anymore. This is the experience of being an American whore,” that much more arresting, as does her nihilistic repetition of “It doesn’t really matter, doesn’t really, really matter.” But, Lana’s narrative of whoredom is not only about herself but how all women are treated as objects that deserve whatever we get. In the third verse, her vocals get significantly weaker and harder to discern as she warbles: “I mean, look at my hair. Look at the length of it and the shape of my body. If I told you that I was raped, do you really think that anybody would think I didn’t ask for it? I didn’t ask for it.” This is the #MeToo song that #MeToo doesn’t want! Suddenly, though, after declaring her invisibility (a throwback to the forgotten Jergins Tunnel on the album’s title track, itself a masterpiece I’ve explored at length elsewhere), the song shifts with thrumming electo as samples of her “American whore” line flow in and out of articulation like a hallucination. This, then, leads into a baby-voiced nursery rhyme-like rap that spins Little Anthony & The Imperials’ “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop” into “Jimmy Jimmy Cocoa Puff,” whose repeated Jimmy line makes me immediately think of M.I.A.’s own “Jimmy.” It’s nonsensical, it’s alarming, and whew, does it sound like Lizzy Grant-era Lana. It’s as if she’s back with those Party City wigs in front of the Venetian blinds. This isn’t a mistake. The song’s conclusion feels almost like a subversive embrace of herself—as that flawed Lizzy, as the girl in the trailer park, as the American Whore, and all the rest of her previous incarnations. As she says, “I don’t care, baby, I already lost my mind.” I mean, fuck it.

These previous selves don’t just appear in familiar vocal stylings. A strange, warped sample emerges midway through the “Jimmy” section of the song—a distortion of the dreamy, wistful intro to the song “Norman fucking Rockwell.” What was once a sun-drenched, sea-misted opener is now distorted and manipulated. Norman Fucking Rockwell!, in fact, haunts the album in several other songs. This includes the “cinnamon in my teeth” in the first lines of “Candy Necklace” with Jon Batiste that recalls “Cinnamon Girl” and the extended cut of “Venice Bitch” that arrives at the conclusion of the album (more on that later).

Like the reflections of NFR!, Ocean Blvd is an album filled with wormholes that lead to both her own songs and others’, including Bob Dylan in “Sweet”, Harry Nilsson in the title song, Leonard Cohen in “Kintsugi,” and The Beatles (as usual) in “Let the Light In” with Father John Misty, which seems to document her and ex-Mike Hermosa’s experience of co-writing many of the songs on this album. This includes repeated lines on the album itself, whether references to braiding hair, the number 3, referring to three family members who recently died, knowing, or letting the light in (again, Cohen). Lana has always been extremely self-referential, but here it seems to have a deeper meaning than the constant repetition of “candle in the wind” that has beset the past few albums like a tic. The echoed lines, a tactic Nick Cave and co have employed on both Ghosteen and Carnage, lead to an immediate sense of cohesiveness that was sorely lacking on Blue Banisters even though Ocean Blvd is just about as diverse sonically.

Yet even with this much self-reflection, it’s not all navel-gazing. Mostly, Lana is asking questions, including the album’s title. Sometimes these queries are about her, including the pleading, “When’s it going to be my turn?” in the title song. Other times, they’re directed at others such as “Do you want children? Do you want to marry me? Do you want to run marathons on Long Beach by the sea?” in “Sweet.” But, by and large, Lana’s asking the big questions. The existential ones (she was a philosophy major). “Do you think about heaven?” she raises on the album’s gospel opener, “The Grants.” Similarly on “Sweet,” she asks, “Do you contemplate where we came from?” And she probes most esoterically on “Fingertips”: “Will I die? Or will I get to that ten-year mark where I beat the extinction of telomeres? And if I do, will you be there with me, Father, Sister, Brother?”

With all these inquiries, I want to return to the assertion made by Judah Smith: could what Lana’s doing be considered preaching? Certainly asking wide-ranging questions about the nature of existence, death, and the beyond seem religious in nature to me. And then there’s the matter of the songs that I would consider themselves religious: “The Grants” and “Kintsugi” (and to some extent, “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing” with her plead to God to send her butterflies for her dead loved ones). Bolstered by the heavenly uplift of gospel backup singers Melodye Perry, Pattie Howard, and Shikena Jones, who just so happened to also be Whitney Houston’s singers, “The Grants” explores the memories we will take with us to the grave: “My pastor told me when you leave, all you take, is your memory. And I’m gonna take mine of you with me.” What is Lana going to take? She specifically calls out her sister’s first-born child and her grandmother’s last smile, both of which are enough to move any listener to tears. And then, you learn the belted refrain of “Rocky Mountain High” is not only Lana’s evocation of a romantic fantasy of America yet again, but a direct reference to her uncle’s suicide in the National Park. “The Grants” is, I believe, a modern hymn, akin to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s similar death march “Lavender Fields.” I mean, what’s next? An album of Psalms?

I would not even be surprised, as “Kintsugi” is the most Nick Cave song I’ve ever heard not written by the man himself. Much of this has to do with both songwriters being obsessive students of Leonard Cohen whose line “That’s how the light gets in” from The Future’s “Anthem” Lana cribs for this song. In “Anthem,” Cohen describes an eternal return of our flawed existence—“The wars they will be fought again. The holy dove, she will be caught again, bought and sold and bought again.” Yet rather than giving up entirely, Cohen deadpans, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Lana turns this refrain into a spiritual light (or “the sunlight of the spirit,” as she articulates) being let in after the broken heart of grief. She sings, “I don’t trust myself with my heart but I’ve had to let it break a little more because they say that’s what it’s for. That’s how the light shines in.”

Even though many of the songs on Ocean Blvd seem depressing as hell, they are, in some ways, like “Kintsugi” quite cathartic, life-affirming, and uplifting. There is a kingdom in the sky and the light gets in through those cracks! And perhaps it’s these cracks that also guide some of the most self-assured parts of the album. From the gospel singers’ opening fuck-up on “The Grants,” singing “mind” instead of “mine,” Lana seems to also be embracing herself (and others) in all the mess. “My shirt is inside out. I’m messy with the pen,” as she sings on “Margaret.” This self-assuredness is also apparent in the giggling that appears throughout the album, from the short nervous chuckle before “A&W” to the consistent laughing in both “Judah Smith Interlude” and “Jon Batiste Interlude,” the latter is somehow perhaps even more strangely unsettling as a cackling carnivalesque soul hall of mirrors. Bizarre.

All of which means: our girl is still fucking crazy but she is free. The last two songs on the album seem to declare just that like soundtracks to a manic episode, starting with “Peppers,” a bizarre mix of erotic Tommy Genesis hip-hop with a sudden infusion of surfer rock in the form of “Wipe Out” that almost reaches B-52’s level of mid-20th century camp. It’s a chaotic and erotic whirlwind of a song as Lana shouts, “I’m in love” and gives a peep show to the neighbors (“I take off all my clothes, dance naked for the neighbors. I’m like, ‘Fuck it, gonna give a show,’ I open up the blinds”). This suddenly psychotic energy in an album largely consisting of downbeat piano ballads blends seamlessly into the Golden State psychedelia of “Taco Truck X VB” in which Lana continues to dance, with fleeting glimpses of ominous imagery (“Although it seems I’ve gotten better, I can be violent too” and “Blood on my feet, on the street, I’m dancing crazy”).

“Taco Truck X VB” not only sees Lana recoup her Lanita persona from “Florida Kilos” that I’m sure someone is penning a thinkpiece about right now, but midway through the song presents listeners with a surprise. A shift back to “Venice Bitch” from Norman Fucking Rockwell! What the hell does Lana mean by bringing back this song—or a version of it, in which her coos to “Get high…Drop acid” seem almost SSION-like? The appearance of “Venice Bitch” yet again on an album released three-and-a-half years after the original is a bold–even, daring–move, not only sampling herself at length but sampling what is undeniably her most critically acclaimed album. But it’s more than a ballsy choice. There is a small tell hidden within “Paris, Texas” in which Lana explains, after going on trips around the globe, that she returns home to, as the background vocals whisper, “Venice, California.” “Venice Bitch” feels like a homecoming of sorts for our Lady of Southern California. It’s as if she emerges from the tunnel, back to the beach.

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