On her amazing eighth album, the singer-songwriter proves there’s nobody else quite like her
The first time I had ever heard Lana Del Rey, it was an unreleased track called “Pawn Shop Blues.” It’s a song about selling jewelry gifted to her from a past love as a means to survive. The ballad opens with:
“Well I didn’t know it would come to this but that’s what happens when you’re on your own / And you’re all right with letting nice things go / Well I pawned the earrings that you gave me, gold and made of flowers dangling and I almost cried as I sold them off.”
It was during the short era of a music listening service called 8 Tracks that allowed users to search for playlists based on key words and themes and upload pirated songs from YouTube; all of which was highly connected to Tumblr. I was thirteen at the time and obsessively enamored with being dramatic, so 8 Tracks quickly became my main source of music discovery. I’d search keywords thematically intertwined with my favorite films (at the time it was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet), typing in “Romeo + Juliet” “sad” “love” and along would come playlists titled These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends or Did My Heart Love ‘Til Now. Within these playlists, not only would I find quintessential soundtracks selections – Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” or Cardigans “Lovefool” – but fans would add their own choosing of songs they found fitting to the overall aesthetics of the playlist.
Somewhere along my searches for unrequited love and sappy ballads, Lana Del Rey came into my life, along with everyone else’s. At the time, I had no idea I was listening to her unreleased music leaked from her early days as Lizzy Grant. Her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No.2” haunted me with nostalgia I didn’t know could exist. Songs like “T.V. in Black and White” and “Never Let Me Go” made us teenage girls and gay men shiver in acknowledgement for the ways that Lana too could romanticize her life.
After my discovery and fondness of these songs, I was eager to tell my fellow music-loving best friend Erin, whom I knew was a fan of Lana’s, that I too could call myself a fan of this mystical singer. When I started to list off my favorite songs to her, Erin replied confusedly, “None of those songs are on iTunes.” So as a gracious music-loving friend does, she burnt me a CD with Lana’s Born To Die, Paradise Edition (omitting album opener “Pepsi Cola” per her mom’s request). When I heard the song “Video Games,” the way I listened to music was changed entirely. Erin and I found ourselves spending most of our days trying to encapsulate the free-spirited adolescence she sang about, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer inspired by “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” drawing paradise tattoos on our hands in cursive to replicate Lana’s. There was something about Lana Del Rey that made us feel seen and heard – each having different attachments. In middle school, the only thing I wanted out of life was romance like in the novels and to be a writer – both of which tied me to weaving meaning into my pre-pubescent boys and to become obsessed with whatever Shakespeare I was reading in English class.
That summer, we HAD to see her, and we were going to do so at Lollapalooza. Somehow our parents trusted us enough at 14 to go to one of the biggest music festivals in the world, alone. Besides the mini shampoo bottle we filled with raspberry-flavored Smirnoff, we weren’t looking to get into trouble – we were there for the music. We camped out at a muddy tree-lined stage formally called “The Grove” for eight hours wearing brand new American Apparel crop tops and flower crowns. We held down the second row, along with a group of the most glorious gay men, who looked out for us as if we were their little sisters. “What’s your favorite song?” they asked us. “Lolita,” I’d respoond proudly, not having read Nabokov yet. It’s still one of the only concerts in my life that I actively go through the depths of iCloud to watch the videos I took on my iPhone 5. I’ll never forget the way she sat, legs dangling off the stage, intimately singing “Video Games” to the crowd, cigarette in hand, or the red gown she wore or the way she looked like a porcelain doll. And while these acts may appear a facade to what every singer wished to accomplish in that era, there was no one who could do it like Lana. No one as believable as Lana.
I was recently talking with a friend about Lana, asking their thoughts and opinions on her. They responded something along the lines of, “There is something about the way she is able to tap into adolescent feelings and emotions that most people can’t do with age. And it feels so pure, and you believe her.” In some ways, it seemed to answer a question I and many others have been asking all these years: why have those of us, new and old, not forgotten Lana? When I was fourteen, I was blinded by her ability to write about love as an all-encompassing emotion, whisked away by these worlds I desired at the time. So why now, eight records later and nothing but time against us, do we find ourselves just as enamored with Lana following the release of Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd.?
On her eighth album, Lana continues to be unafraid to ask the questions. The questions we find ourselves refraining from acknowledging as we grow in age in attempts to seem older, wiser. “Do you think about heaven? Do you think about me?” she asks in the record’s delicate opener dedicated to her family, “The Grants.”
First and foremost, she’s a writer. On “Sweet,” a north country Los Angeles a woman runs barefoot into the woods, sturdy like the trees that dance shadows along her arms, dreaming of a world where someone searches for her there and stays. She asks:
“What you doin’ with your life? Do you think about it? / Do you contemplate where we came from? / Lately, we’ve been makin’ out a lot not talkin’ ’bout the stuff that’s at the very heart of things / Do you want children? Do you wanna marry me / I’ve got things to do like nothing, do you want to do them with me?”
The title-track is one of the best and fiercest ballads she’s ever written (sitting next to “Venice Bitch,” “Yayo,” and “Blue Bannisters”). In the second verse, she dedicates that track’s chorus to Harry Nilsson’s 1974 “Don’t Forget Me” singing, “Something about the way he says ‘don’t forget’ me makes me feel alive.“ The words “Don’t forget me” echo off the mosaic ceiling tiles on the wall, haunting the track.
In “Paris, Texas” a woman moves out west with a notebook littered with escape and a suitcase packed with misunderstandings from the ones she loves the most – the fleeting buried with intuition at its core. “When you know you know,” she whispers.
On “Kintsugi” a woman attempts to flee from her heart and all the pain it bears when she reflects on the people she’s lost. She finds herself in the mountains, at the Roadrunner cafe, and sitting amongst blood relatives singing folk songs from the ’40s borrowing from the Japanese art of putting back broken pottery pieces with gold: “I can’t say I run when things get hard / It’s just that I don’t trust myself with my heart / But I’ve had to let it break a little more / Cause they say that’s what it’s for / That’s how the light shines in.”
On “A&W,” she lures listeners in with a mysterious two-part ballad that turns to bass and drops – a sexy song at first glance. But tied between lyrics of promiscuity, she relays the experience of women belittled to sex appeal. She slams the ending into a arousing beat sampling from The Laurier Berkner Band’s “Down Down Baby” singing, “Jimmy, Jimmy, cocoa puff, Jimmy, Jimmy ride / Jimmy, Jimmy, cocoa puff, Jimmy, get me high / Your mom called I told her, you’re fucking up big time.” That line ranks among the most iconic one liners from Lana (along with “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news”).
At times Lana can be contradictory, but in those moments, she reveals the contradictions that drive the lives of modern women – the desire and pressures of children and marriage, the desire to run from it all to the middle of nowhere to find yourself back home, the desire to run back to the arms of someone who hurts you time and time again.
She’s vintage in essence and modern in delivery, singing of vapes and basic bitches, and of listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, A Tribe Called Quest and The Beatles. She inserts a hopefulness of the Wild West in the current world, as though America exists between Los Angeles and New York under bi-passes and roadside diners. Lana’s timeless, she’s everywhere all at once, she is who she is, and there’s no one else quite like her. She’s one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever. Lana Del Rey loves irrevocably, even through the dirty cracks of what makes a person or a place broken, painting them through the perfect palette of her words. She can make anything beautiful. And she remembers everything.
She’s never followed the rules. She’s hardly ever made a song applicable for radio play (“Summertime Sadness” being the lonesome soldier). On Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd., she revisited “Venice Bitch” simply because she can. She chose the longest title imaginable, because why not? Her Instagram alias “honeymoon” was private for over a year. The only billboard she hung for this record was in her ex-boyfriend’s town, because who needs marketing if you’re Lana Del Rey? She released two records in one year – Chemtrails and Blue Bannisters – and they both reached the top 10 on the Billboard 200.
Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd. is for the fans and for her. She’s consistently committed to never changing, promising to do what she wants with her music – however she wants to do it. And she knows it’s good.
She dreams of a great life herself – one like in the movies Piero Piccioni colors with his scores. The ones Quentin Tarantino colors with the soles of feet and backs of motorcycles and the crimson violence in his films. The ones that leave us hungry for the beauty we can discover in telephone wires and freeways and tunnels under boulevards.
Lana promises her listeners from the beginning that lost objects and loves may never return, but she always remains unwavering in her words, and she will never forget anything. And as she yells back at fans “don’t forget me,” we smile while shaking our heads with a look that promises we’ll never forget, because how could we? When you know you know.