During the past year, all most of us have wanted to do is escape life for at least a little bit. The COVID pandemic has restricted not just daily life but the ability to explore other places. Lana Del Rey is no exception to this with several tracks from her seventh studio album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club speaking of escaping. On “Let Me Love You Like a Woman” she sings, “80 miles north or south will do” and her voice floats over the percussive track “Tulsa Jesus Freak” where Del Rey remembers it’s Arkansas where “the kids in their hoodies, they dance super slow”. First single “White Dress” breathlessly escapes back to the early years of listening to jazz, The White Stripes (when they were white hot), and the Kings of Leon.
Once again working with Jack Antonoff for most of the tracks, Chemtrails gets better as it goes along. “The cameras have flashes, they cause the car crashes/but I’m not a star” she sings on what sounds like a fading 70s star falling apart. “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” borrows the title from a Tolkien quote and is mostly acoustic guitar and a repeated chorus. She works with Rick Nowels on the haunting “Yosemite” and adds a 70s strut to “Dance Til We Die” where she further namechecks Stevie Nicks, Joan Baez, Courtney Love and Joni Mitchell.
That last name is where the album ends, with a cover of Michell’s 1970 track “For Free” that she performs with Zella Day and Weyes Blood. While not as consistent as career highpoint Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Chemtrails still offers up it’s share of memorable moments. While the world seems to stop somedays, Del Rey keeps busy having released a poetry book/spoken word album last year and has already announced her next album will be out on July 4th.
5. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains: The music world lost a lot of great musicians in 2019 including David Berman of Purple Mountains. This was my first introduction to the man’s music and was touched by many of the lyrics contained here. Knowing what happened to Berman soon after release makes some of the songs hard to listen to but this is part of his legacy that he passed on to us. Purple Mountains touches on many of the emotions we all feel from time to time and let’s us know we are not alone. This album will live on for a very long time.
4. Robert Forster – Inferno: Another long running musician that I was really hearing for the first time in 2019. Ex of the much-loved Go-Betweens, Forster doesn’t sound dissimilar to Leonard Cohen and at times on tracks like “The Morning” and “Life Has Turned A Page” he offers much wisdom. Like Cohen, Forster’s music is mature and on the cover he looks dapper as hell. We can still aspire to be this cool.
3. Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride: This came out in May and was ready made for the summer. More complex musically than past releases and adding in a few cameos, most notably from Danielle Haim, this continues to increase the range of Vampire Weekend releases. Many gems to be found here including “Sunflower”, “How Long”, and especially our song of the year – “Harmony Hall”. Like most albums at 18 tracks long, there are a few that can be skipped but those are relatively few on an album that can be played on repeat for several hours.
2. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!: This album is getting lots of love even from people who don’t normally show it to Del Rey. Admittedly, the last few albums can be a bit hit and miss at times but this one never lags and distills the best of her sound onto 12 songs. “Venice Bitch” was a favourite from last year and “Mariners Apartment Complex” sounds like a movie in four minutes. “California” and “The Greatest” are timeless tracks that could have been released at any time in the last 40 years. This is Lana Del Rey’s best album.
1. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel: It’s not very often a straight up rock record gets us this excited but Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. delivered blow after blow on their debut. It’s amazing that this literary band released poem collections before forming a band, as they seem ready made for the big stages in the UK. “Hurricane Laughter”, “Chequeless Reckless”, and “Boys In The Better Land” are a roar heard across the world as people keep falling for the band’s charms. This is the best rock album we’ve heard in years.
Since we started following her career with the release of “Video Games”, Lana Del Rey has had her fair share of detractors. What people can’t say is that this artist is not putting in the work, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Is her sixth(!) studio album since 2010. Released over a year ago, the first sounds most listeners heard from Rockwell was the nearly ten-minute single “Venice Bitch”. It narrowly missed our top ten favourite tracks of 2018, the long song never drags and includes the lyrical earworm “bang bang kiss kiss”. Released at the same time, “Mariners Apartment Complex” is one of the best here, commenting on helping a friend in their time of need with Del Rey relating “you lose your way, just take my hand”.
Many tracks here reference California including one named for the state that references Lennon/Ono that your personal war is over if you want it to be. “Fuck I Love You” was the last track written for the album that says California is just a state of mind, your problems don’t leave you just because you’ve moved. “The Next Best American Record” sounds the most like classic Del Rey and recalls the aforementioned “Video Games” in her lyrical inflections. “The Greatest” is a track that Amy Winehouse could have sung. A classic sounding song with modern lyrics – “I’m wasted… the culture is lit and I had a ball”
Master producer Jack Antonoff co-produces many of the tracks with her but it’s Lana Del Rey that’s the master as she carries many songs with minimal accompaniment, some with just a spare piano and her voice. A few tracks in the middle could easily have been sung by any decent pop singer but songs like “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – but I Have It” could only be done by Del Rey. Featuring several of her best songs, this may be her strongest set of music to date.