In May 2020, Lana Del Rey claimed on Instagram that her music “paved the way for other women to stop ‘putting on a happy face’ and say whatever the hell they wanted to in their music.” (Rather than living on in perpetuity as a bastion of allyship, as she presumably expected, the post lives on in perpetuity on knowyourmeme.com.) However, the words had a small ring of truth to them: Del Rey’s melancholic, glamorized, Americana music has always invited listeners to find bits of themselves. Her new album, “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd,” is different. As “Judah Smith Interlude”tapers off with the words “I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me,” it becomes apparent that the album is not about the listeners, lovers, or even the culture. It’s about her.
The album opens with the pensive “The Grants,” an homage to the real Lana — Elizabeth Grant. The first part of the album explores love, loss, and how to carry both on through memory. In “The Grants” she tenderly sings, “My sister’s first-born child / I’m gonna take that too with me / My grandmother’s last smile.” The first half of the album is more stream of consciousness than expected from Del Rey and her polished sheen of Americana glory, but the meandering of her words feels like we are privy to her revelations and musings as they happen. Rather than feeling haphazard, it feels like an intimate soliloquy. Although lyrically different, the album isn’t Del Rey shedding her persona, she’s just digging deeper: particularly on “A&W,” which mainly consists of questions with no attainable answers.
This is also Del Rey’s most sonically risky album to date. Her soothing murmurs are punctuated by synth beats and bizarre lyrics, with “hands on my knees I’m Angelina Jolie” being a particularly bizarre outlier. They aren’t smooth transitions, but aren’t entirely off-putting. Rather, they represent her changing comfort with the listener as she has a journey of self-discovery. After exploring family bonds that transcend consciousness in “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep sea fishing” (arguably the emotional climax of the album), Del Rey seems to retreat into her shell as she traverses familiar territory of lost lovers and toxic relationships. It is somewhat frustrating as the “real” Lana disappears in Jack Antonoff’s synth, which seems like the work of a Soundcloud rapper with a free trial on GarageBand compared to the previous rawness.
The album is peppered with the understated yet meaningful work of multiple collaborators. Luckily, these collaborations don’t mimic that of Del Rey and Taylor Swift on the latter’s “Midnights,” where her contribution was so understated it was silent. “Let The Light In,” with Father John Misty is an ethereal exploration of heartbreak. “Paris, Texas” uses a track by SYML as the base of a mysterious tune that explores loss and wanting, while “Jon Batiste Interlude” is a domestic vignette that has one yearning for warm nights in a kitchen with old friends.
In this album, Del Rey hopes for transcendence as she explores familial bonds and the people that come before and will go after her. But more than anything, she hopes for a unique human experience. Not the experience of the Lana Del Rey in the denim cut-offs on the hood of the beat-up camaro, but the sentimental Lana and a desire for legacy, love and experience. The one who showed after the cigarette is put out and the Lolita sunglasses are ditched. It’s the Lana who’s doubling down on herself, her flaws and her feelings. It’s unequivocally her.