You could describe Lana Del Rey’s career thus far as a Benjamin Button-type situation: the more hushed, insular, formally experimental and self-referential her music gets, the more popular she seems to become. Last year, she collaborated with Taylor Swift as the only featured artist on her 10th album, Midnights; every other week, a new song from 2014’s Ultraviolence or 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! (NFR!) goes viral. Pop’s new generation seems to look to her as a guiding light, perhaps more than any other star; her impact on culture is outsized, evidenced by a recent artist-on-artist interview in which Billie Eilish gushes about Del Rey, revealing that a photo of her was the background on her first ever phone.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, her ninth album, fits Del Rey’s curious career arc: it is her quietest, most wilfully inscrutable record in a long time, perhaps since 2015’s glacially paced, rebelliously quiet Honeymoon. Many of the songs here don’t have choruses or hooks, and instead feel like the result of Del Rey simply standing in front of a microphone and vibing out. As on 2021’s Blue Banisters, her usual US iconography has been largely replaced with specifics from her own life – the names of her siblings recur; one song is named for Margaret Qualley, the actor girlfriend of Del Rey’s producer, Jack Antonoff; five songs were written with Mike Hermosa, an ex-boyfriend. Del Rey’s artistic universe has long been a closed feedback loop, and in Ocean Blvd’s most dramatic, dynamic moments – the jaw-dropping A&W and hazy closer Taco Truck x VB – she outright samples herself, reusing elements of two NFR! songs to create a psychedelic, unexpected time warp.
Little of the album is as ostentatious as A&W, an excoriation of the misogyny that dogs perceptions of Del Rey, a vivid portrait of an affair and a bratty trap rave-up wrapped into seven impossibly tense minutes. Instead, many songs here are subtle, vaporous, but potent all the same. On Fingertips, a fluid, ambling poem set to reserved piano and strings, Del Rey evokes a flood of scenes from her family history, some distressing and others remarkably quotidian. It feels like leafing through someone’s diaries, some lyrics possessing an almost uncomfortable openness even for a lyricist like Del Rey, who has never shied away from disarming truthfulness: “What kind of mother was she to say I’d end up in an institution?”
The album’s prevailing atmosphere is heavy, beginning with an interlude in which celebrity pastor Judah Smith sermonises for four minutes. Del Rey frequently sings about wanting to escape and feeling misunderstood, and sings about herself with a withering gaze. On Fishtail, a diffuse highlight that begins like an austere folk ballad from 2021’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, before suddenly sharpening its focus with the introduction of a metallic trap beat, she whispers a meek word of self-defence: “I’m not that smart / But I’ve got things to say.”
It would be wrong, though, to characterise Ocean Blvd as a purely introspective record. As on Blue Banisters (for my money, Del Rey’s best album) there’s an appealing aesthetic looseness to many of these songs. At this point, it feels like Del Rey is in a wild west of genre, something she takes full advantage of here. Peppers, which takes its sampled hook from a song by the Canadian “fetish rapper” Tommy Genesis, begins as a strutting, louche rap track, Del Rey singing with a brilliantly insouciant mumble (“My boyfriend tested positive for Covid / It don’t matter, we’ve been kissing / So whatever he has I have”) before the whole thing morphs into a rollicking psych-rock song. On Let the Light In, Del Rey’s third collaboration with Father John Misty, she revives the soporific drawl of her early records to sing about a dead-end, almost cartoonishly toxic affair. And she is still prone to sharp, casually tossed-off one-liners: “If you want some basic bitch go down to the Beverly Centre and find her,” she sings on Sweet. On one of her longest, most emotionally raw records, these moments provide much-needed variation and relief, and provide pockets of pop structure on an album that tends toward tangled, labyrinthine melodies.
Ocean Blvd ends with Taco Truck x VB – essentially a trap remix of the NFR! single Venice Bitch, with a new verse added at the beginning. It’s a fitting closer: much of the album feels like past iterations of Del Rey remixed, mashed up and reworked, less in a way that suggests reheated material as an artist who feels there might be more to wring from an already vast and conceptually dense catalogue.
The Del Rey of Taco Truck x VB aligns with the mercurial, occasionally irascible figure who recently threatened to pull out of Glastonbury over a lineup placement issue – a side of her that hasn’t always made it on to her records. “Before you talk let me stop what you’re saying,” Del Rey sings, “I know, I know, I know that you hate me.” At this point in her career – 12 years in, more popular than ever, teasing out the complexities of a project that seems to be metamorphosing in real time – the opposite seems true.
• This subheading of this article was amended on 20 March 2023, to correct the number of albums Del Rey has released.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is released on 24 March.