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Lana Del Rey finds solace, existential crisis and intricate truth under “Ocean Blvd”

The singer questions her legacy and rejects the use of easy answers in her deeply intimate ninth album “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd"

Across her previous eight records, Lana Del Rey has created an iconography of cherry cola, cigarettes, sycamore trees, seedy dive bars and American flags flying defiantly and dejectedly.
Across her previous eight records, Lana Del Rey has created an iconography of cherry cola, cigarettes, sycamore trees, seedy dive bars and American flags flying defiantly and dejectedly.

Across her previous eight records, Lana Del Rey has created an iconography of cherry cola, cigarettes, sycamore trees, seedy dive bars and American flags flying defiantly and dejectedly. On her ninth album, titled “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd,” Del Rey expands the dreamlike, liminal space that her music exists in, revealing lyrical ruminations that are consistently profound, occasionally disquieting and never dull. 

Album opener “The Grants” begins with gospel harmonies full of meditative warmth and reflection as Del Rey sings of what she will cherish when she passes — “My sister's first-born child, I'm gonna take that too with me / My grandmother's last smile, I'm gonna take that too with me.” As her stream of consciousness flows in a poetic fashion, questions of family, legacy, memory and death circle around one another until they become one and the same.

Del Rey uses languid ballads to shatter this newfound, deeply personal ground. Title track “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is cinematic and orchestral, the production perfectly accompanying Del Rey’s niche cultural references and detailed lyrical expression. She bittersweetly sings “Harry Nilsson has a song / his voice breaks at 2:05” with a sense of quiet loneliness as she pleads to not be forgotten “like the tunnel under Ocean Boulevard.”

While similar in their slow pace and symbolic indulgence, each ballad displays quiet differences in artistry. “Sweet” borrows from the Leonard Cohen songbook of poetic existentialism as she sings of hiking up Griffith Park while thinking of a former lover, but is not without classic Del Rey lexicon — “If you want some basic b—h, go to the Beverly Center and find her.” 

The angelic “Kintsugi” exhibits newfound vulnerability that is complemented by the melodic consolation found in “Let the light in (feat. Father John Misty)” — a beautifully uplifting song reminiscent of The Beatles. The love story “Margaret (feat. Bleachers)” also offers comfort to existential questions from previous tracks with the phrase “When you know, you know.” 

However, the optimism in these songs is juxtaposed by eerie quaintness and sadness. “Candy Necklace (feat. Jon Batiste)'' meanders through Gatsby-esque visions of high society, and “Paris, Texas (feat. SYML)” is a hauntingly gorgeous contemplation of escapism.

The darker perspectives are reinforced by melancholic tones and minor keys that add well-roundedness and nuance to the record — creating a cynical flipside to the bright and shimmering sounds of the more positive ballads.

Del Rey stands out on tracks that take full advantage of her expressive ability. “Fingertips” is a heartbreaking display of Del Rey’s contemplation of motherhood featuring the lyrics “Caroline, will you be with me? / Will the baby be alright? / Will I have one of mine? / Can I handle it even if I do?” 

On “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” she asks God to send her three white butterflies, an innocent metaphor for hope that she may find meaning in life. The dramatic orchestration reaches a crescendo before falling back down like a wave crashing against a shore.

When she’s not singing hazy ballads over musical production evocative of Disney fairy tales and classic cinema, Del Rey swaps sonic unity for emotional impact. This creative liberty is most strikingly expressed by the controversial artistic choices that are “Judah Smith Interlude” and “Jon Batiste Interlude.” While the spoken word pieces are thematically consistent with the album’s ideation of lust, spirituality, and nostalgia, the dissonance of loud voices layered over dramatic piano feels harsh and disjointed from the rest of the album. 

“A&W'' — which ranks among the artist’s finest works — displays stunning complexity lyrically and sonically. The first half of the song, which features soft acoustic guitar, carries the feeling of trauma and dissociation through the repetition of the lines, “It’s not about having someone to love me anymore / This is the experience of being an American whore.” 

A masterful slow fade at the four-minute mark gives way to a sleazy baseline that marks the continuance of Del Rey’s experimentation with the sounds of electronic hip-hop. The track veers sideways down a dark synthy alleyway of the mind of Del Rey, whose surreal lyricism thrives alongside astute production, speaker-shaking bass and trap beats.

Following a sequence of six ballads, “Fishtail” incorporates a staggering beat drop that pulls the album out of its introspective trance and into a wild west of musical genres, denoting the beginning of the record’s final act. “Peppers” follows the genre-bending footsteps, beginning as a louche rap track before morphing into psychedelic surf-rock with an oddity of a chorus — “Hands on your knees / I’m Angelina Jolie” — sampled from rapper Tommy Genesis.

Closing track “Taco Truck x VB” provides a satisfying conclusion to the album. A lilting, calypso-tinged opening section melts away into woozy instrumentation that segues into a gritty remix of “Venice B—h” — an acclaimed single from Del Rey’s 2019 album “Norman F—g Rockwell!” The self-referential confidence in Del Rey’s new record is an emblem of both the legacy of her discography and the singer’s own emotional maturity, resulting in a breathtaking evolution of her musicality. 

There is an aesthetic looseness to “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” — timeless strings and vocals reminiscent of Old Hollywood ricochet off of the buzzing electricity of trap beats and big statements about America, youth and sex. The variation in genre is made cohesive through songwriting — undoubtedly Del Rey’s greatest asset. Tracks cross-reference one another and lyrics loop back to previous ruminations, allowing listeners to feel as though they are experiencing Del Rey’s day-to-day with her as she reflects on these heavy topics.

The album is the creation of an idyllic yet haunted world where Del Rey has alchemized her pain, soul-searching and existential pondering. Adept lyricism makes for a surplus of fascinating moments, and with the inclusion of confident assertions and powerful, uplifting messages, it is clear that the nihilist lyricism so associated with the artist has shifted subtly — there is now happiness at the end of Lana Del Rey’s tunnel.

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