‘Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd’ begins with a mistake. As a trio of backing singers are conducted through a burst of ‘The Grants’’ central chorus line, they slip up. “I’m gonna take mind of you with me,” they sing, “mind” instead of the intended “mine”. They’re halted, coached through the correction and restart, but you can still hear an erroneous ‘d’ taking ‘e’’s place on the next two goes round.
Other artists might have scrubbed that faux pas and replaced it with something perfect and polished, but not Lana Del Rey. That error is reflective of how she portrays the world and life itself in her music – imperfect, sometimes messy. In many ways, she is a documentarian capturing angles that aren’t just bright and beautiful.
Her ninth studio album is another testament to that approach. On ‘… Ocean Blvd’, she opens up on her life now, pondering the big questions and contemplating family, home and her future. The songs cross-reference each other, looping back to earlier thoughts and feelings, making it feel like you’re with her in her day-to-day as she muses on these weighty topics.
In particular, the record faces up to the queries and doubts that loom over even the most non-traditional of women as they journey through their thirties (Del Rey is now 37) – ones society haunts you with until you have an answer. After chiding her brother to stop smoking and asking her sister if she’ll be by her side on the string-laden swoon of ‘Fingertips’, a flurry of hushed questions follows. “Will the baby be alright? / Can I have one of mine? / Can I handle it?” she asks softly. Earlier, on the gorgeous piano-led ‘Sweet’, Del Rey challenges a potential partner to talk “about stuff that’s at the very heart of things”: “Do you want children? / Do you wanna marry me? / Do you wanna run marathons in Long Beach by the sea?”
Working out what direction you want to take your life in and which of the traditional expectations the world places on us you want for yourself isn’t a linear passage. It’s one that twists and turns, spikes through peaks and troughs. “When’s it gonna be my turn?” Lana asks on the longing title track. Although it’s not clear what she’s singing about, it could easily apply to those ideas of life’s Big Things – a one true love, a family of her own. On ‘A&W’ – a track that starts off dark and folky before fizzing into an addictive, bass-y outro littered with femi-nasty, quotable lyrics – she defies that yearning feeling. “It’s not about having someone to love me anymore,” she declares. “Did you know a singer can still be / A side-piece at 33?” she murmurs, disregarding the get-married-and-settle-down agenda with a gentle but powerful force.
‘…Ocean Blvd’’s other big narrative is family – both blood and chosen. There are call-outs across the record to her siblings, father, grandparents and more. The opening song ‘The Grants’ is titled as such for her relatives, and as it goes from melancholy and maudlin to being pierced with light, Del Rey promises to take her memories – “my sister’s firstborn child”, “my grandmother’s last smile” – of those close to her “with me”. Between calls out to God for herself, ’Grandfather, please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing’ – which features French pianist RIOPY – finds her asking her granddad to protect her dad from the other side.
‘Margaret’ – one of the record’s most beautiful and moving songs – takes the focus outside of the Grant clan to Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff and actor Margaret Qualley, telling the story of their romance. “He met Margaret on a rooftop / She was wearing white and he was like / ‘I might be in trouble’ / He had flashes of the good life / He was like, ‘Shall I jump off this building now or do it on the double?’,” she sings in the opening verse, mirroring the tumbling, hurried way Antonoff often expresses himself in his own songs.
Although ‘…Ocean Blvd’ largely doesn’t answer any of its big questions, ‘Margaret’ resembles something like a solution. “When you know, you know,” Del Rey shares, returning to a sentiment from the earlier ‘Paris, Texas’. Later, in a gentle spoken word line, she adds: “So if you don’t know, don’t give up ‘cos you never know what the new day will bring.”
As she steps into new lyrical territory here, so too does Lana enter new sonic worlds. Her ninth album merges the soulful, classic, timeless sounds of a singer-songwriter from a distant time and the vocal melodies and techniques of an old Hollywood starlet (it’s not hard to imagine the likes of Audrey Hepburn singing parts on songs like ‘Sweet’) with trap beats, speaker-wobbling bass and spoken word tracks edited with a sense of Warholian spirit.
‘Judah Smith Interlude’ represents the latter, a four-and-a-half-minute presentation of one of the Churchome pastor’s sermons set to piano ripples and soft electric guitar. Occasionally, giggles and muttering from Del Rey cuts over the top, crackling like the audio of a Factory film. Another interlude led by Grammy-winning jazz and R&B auteur Jon Batiste centres around a piano line that swells and spins as a cacophony of voices is layered over it.
Elsewhere, Del Rey uses old songs from other artists and her own back catalogue to invent something new. On ‘Peppers’, she samples Tommy Genesis’ ‘Angelina’ to make a slinky, cool cut that harnesses stream-of-consciousness meandering about a relationship. Some of the lyrics are more successful at setting the mood, while others are bound to raise eyebrows: “My boyfriend tested positive for COVID, it don’t matter,” she sings at one point. “We’ve been kissing so whatever he has, I have / I can’t cry.”
Album closer ‘Taco Truck x VB’, meanwhile, boasts a twist that’s obvious when you know it’s coming but halts you in your tracks the first time you hear it. After a lilting calypso-tinged opening section, it melts into woozy instrumentation that segues into the original, unreleased take of her 2018 single ‘Venice Bitch’ – darker, grittier and even better than the version we’re familiar with.
It’s a fitting end to an album that pulls from past, present and future, both musically and from the life of its creator, echoing the back-and-forth of the rest of the record. It’s a reminder, too, that ‘…Ocean Blvd’ might deal with some major existential questions, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had and cements Del Rey’s status as one of modern music’s most intriguing songwriters.
- Record label: Polydor Records
- Release date: March 24, 2023