Photo Credit: Mat Hayward/Getty Images
Ever since Lana Del Rey had her breakthrough back in 2012 with what some critics described as the “shallow,” “overwrought,” and “depressing” Born to Die, Lana has remained a contemporary pop mystery who rarely appears on TV shows or in interviews. Even though Born to Die would prove some of the most negative critics wrong by ending up as a generational anthem for the saddest generation, her early albums were honestly all a bit heavy to consume. But with 2019’s Norman F*cking Rockwell!, the skies cleared, revealing an artist who had plenty of substance to give us, as the cinematic arrangements were stripped down to acoustic folk ballads. She went even further with her down-scaling with 2021’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club and releasing her now eighth studio album Blue Banisters, she remains on that same path.
Blue Banisters opens with three of the strongest songs in Lana’s entire career. “Text Book” sets the tone, almost stumbling into a mesmerizing story about Lana reflecting on her relationship with ex-boyfriend Clayton Johnson, while also mentioning that she was a part of a Black Lives Matter rally (almost as if she believes she has something to prove after the racist accusations pointed towards her a few years ago), and mentioning her problematic relationship with her father. It’s a rare, introspective portrait of an artist who’s generally avoided such candid insights into her private life in the past. Similarly, “Blue Banisters” deals with her personal life, with references to female friends and her ex-boyfriend Sean Larkin, a police officer from Oklahoma.
The third song, “Arcadia”, is less of a personal statement and more of the stereotypical Lana Del Rey song. “My body is a map of LA,” she opens, and continues; “My chest, the Sierra Madre // My hips, every high and byway // That you trace with your fingertips like a Toyota // Run your hands over me like a Land Rover.” It’s sensual, it’s beautiful, and it’s very much Lana, indeed. However, rather than a love letter to America, it’s mostly an answer to her controversial statements about narcissism being the real problem in America rather than climate change and capitalism. “I’m leaving them as I was, five-foot-eight, Western belt // Plus the hate that they gave // By the way, thanks for that, on the way // I’ll pray for you // But you’ll need a miracle, America.”
Suddenly, a weird trap-remix of an old Ennio Morricone theme from Sergio Leone’s legendary picture The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly appears and suggests a change of mood, and from this point, things do get a little messier – if only a little. Mostly, we’re being offered typical Lana ballads that you will like if you love her and hate if you don’t. There’s one notable exception, though. “Dealer” – a duet with the Last Shadow Puppets’ Miles Kane written back in 2017 – is the darkest song in Lana’s entire catalog. “I don’t wanna live,” Lana screams in the chorus with a vocal intensity from out of this world that, together with the lighter but musically similar “Thunder”, really makes you wonder what a Miles Kane-meets-Lana Del Rey album would sound like if the plans would have come through.
Ultimately, Blue Banisters further recognizes Lana Del Rey as an important part of the great American song tradition. Her songwriting is excellent throughout the record and by constantly pushing her greatest asset – her vocals – to new heights, Lana has crafted an exceptionally well-sung and mesmerizing album that offers some of the finest songs of her career so far while offering new personal insights to her inscrutable persona. When the day is done, Lana won’t be remembered for her controversial statements, but for her stunning portrait of a politically fragmented America.