Before anything else is said about Lana Del Rey’s new album, let it be noted that however well the record came out, it was foreordained to come in second among her artistic works of the past year. Because absolutely nothing could surpass the mic drop of her placing the sole billboard announcing the new project in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the hometown of a fairly recent ex-boyfriend, in what could only be seen as a clever combination of extreme advertising narrowcasting and baller performance art.
But if “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd” had to come in as a runner-up to that, it’s a very, very, very close second. It might even count as her masterpiece to date, among her non-billboard-related work. The word “might” is advisable because claims to that kind of superiority can only be made after a lot of time and repeat listens have passed, of course, and “Ocean Blvd.” is such a dense set of songs to take in that your immediate response to its 16 songs might be to rise for a standing ovation… and then think that maybe you’ll need a week to rest before you settle in for a second and third listen, this time with a whole Internet’s worth of CliffNotes. The album is likely to wear you out — at least it will if you’re consuming it as confessional songwriting, in bulk, and not just aural wallpaper — but it’s a happy exhaustion.
It would be natural for anyone who took note of the news stories in December about Del Rey’s pointed signage placement to think that “Ocean Blvd” will further target the ex in question. And also wrong. Because if the former beau does stream the album, the ultimate kick in the pants for him might not be the billboard but the fact that little or none of the record seems to overtly be about him. This is not a revenge album in the slightest; surprisingly few of the 16 songs are even about exes or breakups at all, and some of the handful that do fit more or less squarely into that category reference other people known to be part of her relationship history.
Granted, a very wordy 78-minute album offers plenty of opportune time to explore lust gone right and love gone wrong, and there are some corkers in that regard. But for the bulk of “Ocean Blvd,” Del Rey is considering ostensibly meatier matters — starting, in the opening song, “The Grants,” with what both she and her loved ones will be thinking about after her death. (Yes, she does presume a conscious afterlife.) That stark blast of legacy planning is followed by songs about, in no particular order: Her family — almost always called out by name. Death. Multiple deaths in the family. Loving her father, and her late grandfather and uncle. Not loving mom so much. Her fitness for being a mother herself, or the lack of it. Mental illness. God. Sexual shame. Sexual liberation. Pottery. (Don’t worry, it’s metaphoric.) Margaret Qualley. Hair braiding as a sign of true intimacy among friends or lovers. Did we mention death? There’s lots of that.
For any pop fans who are quick to use the word “solipsism” as a pejorative, this is probably not the album for you, although if you’re judgy that way, you probably jumped off the Del Rey bus long before we arrived at this stop. Good songwriters will tell you that what’s specifically personal is the best way to get at what’s universal, but the specifics come at you a mile a minute here, testing just how much detail about the former Lizzy Grant’s life you want to know in any given verse. If the answer is “bring it on,” this album is a rich feast. Even if, to get the full gist of things, it does call for research and multitasking — i.e., keeping Google Search or Genius.com’s fan-annotated side notes open if you’re a mere Del Rey dabbler who wants to actually learn who “Donoghue” is (a musician ex-boyfriend name-checked in passing in one song, in a positive context). Or to figure out the connection between her shout-out to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” references to her uncle’s death in the Colorado Rockies, and her pastor’s theory on what parts of consciousness survive into the next life. It’s that diaristic — and also that dazzling, if you’re of a mind to let all these lyrical details-within-details take you to a place where you’re minded of your own family and relationship issues. Or of your own impending demise! Or of how Ms. Qualley, co-producer Jack Antonoff’s highly praised wife, is a strong avatar to stand in for your own dream spouse.
Helpfully, the excellent music itself is just trance-y enough, most of the time, in making even her most extremely literal asides feel like spiritual musings. It does bear saying, though, that “Ocean Blvd.” won’t be for everybody — and not even for all past Del Rey fans — not just because of the ever-increasingly conversational nature of her lyrics but because most of the musical accompaniment does not stray too far from a zone. And it’s not a bop zone. The presence of Father John Misty as a featured artist on one track, (as a harmonizer, not really duet partner) feels appropriate, because, deliberately or inadvertently, the heavy use of orchestration on Del Rey’s album has a kinship to the strings load-up FJM has employed on albums like “Pure Comedy.” A good portion of “Ocean Blvd” consists of marrying a piano (or, less often, acoustic guitar) with a backing tapestry that might best be described as spookily symphonic. Del Rey’s warm vocals are operating at a slightly different temperature than the chill-down-spine strings, but just as with Misty’s recent records, it makes for a great match.
Some listeners who are less inclined to digging orchestration will surely complain about the surfeit of strings and slow tempos to be a slog… especially if they listen to the album in sequence and give up before getting all the way through it. Those of us who think sticking with a contemplative musical mood is a feature, not a flaw — or at least is on this album — will feel more amply rewarded. But if you are digging the downbeat vibes but wishing there were a bit more dynamics, patience is your friend, because the music beds do throw you for some loops (literally?), finally, mostly at the very end of the album. For much of its length, the already-released teaser track “A&W,” placed on the record as track 4, is the only song that features what anybody would qualify as contemporary production — and does it so well that it doesn’t seem off-base to agree with Antonoff himself when he said a while back that this strangely bifurcated, bass-heavy number is “my favorite we’ve ever done.”
It’s another somber wait after that, then, for a while, before the collection ends wholly unexpectedly on an up note with “Peppers” — named after the Red Hot Chilis! — and “Taco Truck/VB,” the second half of which is a full-on alternate version of a previous album favorite, “Venice Bitch,” now rendered “grimier,” in her words. Mind you, the tone of what comes before may still make “Ocean Blvd” not a favorite among the subset of fans who yearn for a bit more of the old “Ultraviolence.” But you can take these vibe-ier, clubbier closing songs as a kind of dessert that’s a reward for making it through the soul-searching beginning and middle of the record, or just a very satisfying, if slightly abrupt, twist ending.
As for the writing itself, there’s not an unfascinating moment on the album, whether she’s making characteristically quotable, glaringly bold declarations or leading attentive superfans into obscure rabbit holes. There are obvious or subtle references to other artists’ songs — although she’s not shy about quoting her own oldies, either. This marks the second time on an album that she’s cited a certain Eagles perennial: “There’s a girl who sings ‘Hotel California,’ not because she loves the notes or sounds that sound like Florida,” Del Rey croons — and whether or not you agree, it’s just an interesting point of music criticism, that she is announcing the ’70s smash evokes a different state than the titular one. She’s not any less specific in making observations about pop than she in the ones about her own life: “Harry Nilsson has a song, his voice breaks at 2:05,” she sings in the title song (referencing a tune from 1974’s “Pussy Cats”), certainly the first time in recent memory one artist has time-stamped another’s as part of a random verse. Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” comes up for consideration, too (as it does in a track on the Boygenius album that comes out next week). She’s letting you in on the soundtrack of her life just as hers is becoming yours, cyclically, again.
As expected, she has moments of self-defensiveness, about her entire career and persona — or lack of persona. The idea that there is anything put-on about what she presents to the public continues to be a sore point, albeit not one she expounds on at too great a length. “They say there’s irony in the music / It’s a tragedy, I see nothing Greek in it,” she sings, giving the middle finger once more to the slowly deteriorating notion that there’s anything except earnestness-with-a-capital-E about her work. There’s one allusion to a social-media controversy over race a few years ago that is a sleeping dog she might have let lie: “I’m good in spirit, warm-bodied / A fallible deity wrapped up in white / I’m folk, I’m jazz, I’m blue, I’m green / Regrettably, also a white woman / But I have good intentions, even if I’m one of the last ones” who does, Del Rey sings, sticking up for her own sincerity. “If you don’t believe me, my poetry, or my melodies, feel it in your bones: I have good intentions.” An editor might have red-penciled part of that, but after the gold rush of candid thought that is the entirety of this album, a self-censoring Del Rey is maybe the last thing you’d ask for. If you’re in for her lack of a filter even a little, you’re probably in for the full Lana.
Single verses on the album sometimes contain more jolting or bracing or hilarious lines than most pop performers will ever manage in a lifetime. There’s a verse in “A&W” (which stands for “American Whore,” not the root beer stand) that suggests she might have experienced rape, but if she had, she’s not going to tell anybody, due to how it’d be misperceived or leave her open to greater attack. Singing about her sister’s baby (by name, as always), she asks out loud: “Will I have one of mine? Can I handle it even if I do? It’s said that my mind is not fit, or so they said, to carry a child. I guess I’ll be fine.” She addresses her sister, again, about the one who raised them: “Caroline, what kind of mother was she to say I’d end up in institutions? All I wanted to do was kiss Aaron Greene [a since-deceased schoolmate from Lake Placid, NY] and sit by… What the fuck’s wrong in your head to send me away, never to come back? Exotic places and people don’t take the place of being your child.”
There’s some rough stuff in here, perhaps needless to say. But it doesn’t sound as tough, or scattered, or even unmusical as isolated lyric quotes might make it seem. Just about without fail she’s singing like the proverbial angel, in death-and-afterlife songs or considerations of sexual mores alike, and Antonoff, a co-producer on almost all the tracks, makes these reflections sound heavenly to match. That pertains when she starts getting more unapologetically horny, toward the end of the album, in “Let the Light In” — “Don’t be actin’ like I’m the kind of girl who can sleep,” she teases, making an early a.m. booty call — or the truly loose “Peppers.”
There are also tracks that emphasize the “weird” in “weird but fucking beautiful” (to quote “Snow on the Beach,” the song Del Rey recently co-wrote with Taylor Swift). One interlude is a nearly five-minute voice-mail memo of a sermon by her evangelical pastor, Judah Smith, with the sound of Del Rey occasionally chuckling or signaling assent to something he’s preaching, his exhortations about fidelity set to a strangely sad piano melody. A second interlude is three-and-a-half minutes of Jon Batiste (who also guests on another song) sounding like a preacher himself in the studio, shouting, “Ha ha ha! I feel it in my soul!,” over a similarly melancholy instrumental. These may exist in the middle of the album as reminders to herself that, while the flesh is weak, the Holy Spirit is willing, and it merits its own mid-album features.
It’s rare that a performer has to vouch for her own genuineness, as Del Rey does on occasion here. But she has been a scourge, in some circles, leaving the rest of the pop world rooting for the anti-heroine. In the end, here, there is some irony, but it’s not in her persona — it’s in how the woman who changed her name to a nom de plume in the early stages of becoming a star ends up titling the first song on an album “The Grants,” and proceeding autobiographically from there. And open-heartedly, too. Lana Del Rey, accused for so long of striking a pose, may ironically be the most naked, least affected pop superstar we have right now. That’s something worth putting on a billboard.