Lana Del Rey Confronts Mortality On Her New Album

The singer poignantly reflects on aging and recent deaths in her family on her latest album.

Lana Del Rey can’t stop thinking about getting old. On her ninth studio album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, out today, she confronts her own mortality with a depth of fear that feels new and hard-earned. 

At 77 minutes, the album can be long-winded. If you let it wash over you, without giving it complete attention, it can seem gauzy and impenetrable. None of these tracks are really meant to be hits. In many places, Del Rey abandons clear divisions between verse, chorus, and bridge, instead writing epic poems to herself where she figures out how best to live. Sometimes she mumbles, as on the title track, as though intentionally obscuring her words from the public. Sometimes she rambles, as on “Kintsugi,” which is an awkward metaphor for finding light in the cracks of grief. Sometimes she stumbles, as on the unlistenable “Peppers,” which will hopefully be the last time she tries to rap.

But if you have the time to crack the album open — like if you listen to it closely on a long solo walk at night — its moments of transcendent beauty are devastating. Processing death amid the tumult of regular life, Del Rey distills the chaos of grief into succinct and thrilling verses that make the album worth a listen.

Of course, Del Rey has always written about death. In the early years of her career, sultry depression chic was central to her appeal. On her debut album, 2012’s Born to Die, death is the looming force urging her to party harder: “High heels off / I’m feeling alive,” she sings on “Summertime Sadness.” In a later verse, she laughs, “I know if I go / I’ll die happy tonight.” 

But on Ocean Blvd, she rarely says the words “death” or “die.” Instead, her fears of aging and dying alone or unremembered have seeped into her everyday consciousness. They manifest in subtler language. On opener “The Grants,” Del Rey, born Elizabeth Grant, addresses her family. “My pastor told me when you leave, all you take / Is your memory / And I’m gonna take mine of you with me,” she sings. She repeats this last line several times, until it starts to sound less like a tender reassurance and more like a desperate grasp for something, anything she can hold onto in the next life. She names the memories she’d want to keep as though that will make them easier to save: her “sister’s first-born child” and her “grandmother’s last smile.” Here, she leaves behind the bravado of “Summertime Sadness,” where she once declared, “Nothing scares me anymore.” Now she sounds more like a child in religion class, asking, “Do you think about heaven?” She craves comfort, unable to dole it out. 

If you have the time to crack the album open — like if you listen to it closely on a long solo walk at night — its moments of transcendent beauty are devastating. 

Beneath her newly mature musings, the old Lana still exists. The best and worst of her musical career and persona beat from every song. Lana the seductor, self-obsessed and dramatic, flares up in scattered, biting lines: “If you want some basic bitch / Go to the Beverly Center and find her,” she scoffs on “Sweet.” And the line “Fuck me to death / Love me until I love myself” from Ocean Blvd’s title track would be right at home alongside “My pussy tastes like Pepsi cola,” that iconic phrase from Born to Die. 

Lana the lover of Americana thrives here too, with references to John Denver, Rockefeller, and  Ella Fitzgerald. Del Rey revamped her aesthetic in 2017, ahead of the release of her album Lust for Life. In her early career, she drew heavily from patriotic imagery, performing “Born to Die” in front of the US flag and cosplaying as Jackie Kennedy for the music video accompanying “National Anthem.” After Donald Trump became president, she said it would feel “weird” and “uncomfortable” to continue romanticizing American symbols, but she never let go of an essential love for the pastoral and historical.

On 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, her most widely acclaimed album to date, she subverted this style so cleverly that Pitchfork declared her “the next best American songwriter, period.” She tempered her romance with a grim surveillance of a crumbling world, injecting fire, danger, and TV into her visions of a lovely landscape. 

On Ocean Blvd, Del Rey makes a similar move, setting the vivid gorgeousness of the natural world against a constant thrum of mortality. On standout track “Fingertips,” she sings of an adolescence where “all I wanted to do was kiss Aaron Greene and / Sit by the lake twisting lime into the drinks that they made,” conjuring an idyllic summer afternoon in her hometown of Lake Placid, New York. But then she sings, “Aaron ended up dead, not me.” She’s recounting the real tragedy of a real Aaron Greene. Later in the track, she tells her siblings, “Give me a mausoleum / In Rhode Island with Dad / Grandma, Grandpa, and Dave / Who hung himself high / In the national park sky.” This is another reference to a real death in Del Rey’s life; her uncle Dave died in Colorado in 2016, while she was on tour. It’s also an inimitable image, surreal and searing, vividly painted and quickly abandoned. It epitomizes Del Rey’s particular genius. She writes in quick, deft strokes; the simple additions of “high” and “sky” to the line about her uncle Dave make a straightforward depiction of death into a celestial scene. 

But Ocean Blvd also reveals the twitchily defensive Lana, the one who posted a bizarre Instagram screed in 2020 where she complained of feminist hypocrisy. At the time, Del Rey wrote that she had been “crucified” for “glamorizing abuse,” even though other artists — she named primarily Black women like Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé — found success with songs “about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc.” It was out of touch, and plenty of fans and critics told her so. But a trace of resentment still appears on the lengthily titled Ocean Blvd track “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing.” Calling herself “regrettably also a white woman,” Del Rey insists, “I have good intentions even if I’m one of the last ones.” Sometimes, she still writes like someone under direct attack.

Still, the overwhelming feeling of listening to Ocean Blvd — and it is indeed overwhelming, churning in epic swells of violins and rolling piano riffs — is one of grief. Del Rey’s grief for her dead relatives overflows into every corner of her life, loose and formless and urgent. It gurgles up to the surface at inconvenient moments, as on “Sweet,” where she and a lover have “been making out a lot / Not talking ‘bout the stuff that’s at the very heart of things / Do you want children? / Do you wanna marry me?” She seems increasingly aware of her limited lifespan, and of the significant milestones of adult life that are passing her by. On “A&W,” the sprawling, seven-minute lead single whose title stands for “American whore,” she deadpans, “Did you know a singer can still be / Looking like a sidepiece at 33?” 

But Del Rey is 37 now, and surprised to find herself in an almost matriarchal role. When she celebrates her friends’ love, as she does on “Margaret,” named for actor Margaret Qualley, fiancé of her producer Jack Antonoff, Del Rey sighs, “When you know, you know / And when you’re old, you’re old / Like Hollywood and me.” She’s nervous. She wants to make sure the world remembers her; on the titular track, she pleads, “Don’t forget me.” But she’s not sure how to ensure her legacy, whether she’s up to the task of preserving herself through art or family. Turning to her sister, she asks, “Will the baby be alright? / Will I have one of mine? / Can I handle it even if I do?”●

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