BY Simon Wu in Music , Opinion | 01 JUN 23

Lana Del Rey Unravels Her Legacy

In her ninth studio album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, the artist reaches new heights of candour

BY Simon Wu in Music , Opinion | 01 JUN 23

When the singer-songwriter Elizabeth Woolridge Grant was deciding on a stage name, she pulled together two things that seem to have nothing in common: the American actress Lana Turner, known for her old Hollywood glamour, and the Ford Del Rey sedan, popular in Brazil during the 1980s and affiliated with macho, working-class bravado. By this time, she’d had many other aliases – among them May Jailer, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen and Lizzy Grant – but Lana Del Rey was her sleekest yet, fusing glitz with commodity to become the songstress of America’s ruins that she is today.

A white woman biting her thumb on the cover of an album
Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, 2023, album artwork. Courtesy: Interscope / Polydor

With her ninth studio album, however, Del Rey pulls away from these characters to focus on Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, repurposing her languid, tongue-in-cheek lyricism into earnest feats of confession. ‘Eleven years ago, I wanted it to be so good,’ Del Rey told Billboard in 2023. ‘Now, I just sing exactly what I’m thinking. I’m thinking a little less big and bombastic. Maybe, at some point, I can have fun creating a world again but, right now, I would say there’s no worldbuilding. This music is about thought processing.’ In Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (2023), Del Rey reaches new heights of candour to consider where she came from, who she was made into and what this process has done to her. ‘I know they think that it took thousands of people / To put me together again like an experiment,’ she sings, addressing her critics in the sweepingly titled ‘Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father as he’s deep-sea fishing’. ‘Some big man behind the scenes / So I am Frankenstein, black dreams into my song / But they’re wrong.’

The first song she wrote for this album, ‘Fingertips’, was created using a process she described as ‘meditative automatic singing’ in a 2020 interview with W magazine. This involved singing whatever came into her mind, with no prior writing, onto her phone’s Voice Notes app, later sending those ‘really raw-sounding’ clips to composer Drew Erickson, who added reverb to her vocals as well as an orchestral backing. The gauzy, melancholic result is operatic and diaristic – Del Rey waxes about her sister and her baby, whether she wants kids herself, and whether you love her. ‘They say there’s irony in the music,’ she sings in ‘Fingertips’, ‘it’s a tragedy, I / See nothing Greek in it.’ The first track on the album, ‘The Grants’ – presumably about her own family, given its title – affirms that this album is about legacies, both familial and artistic. Del Rey leaves much of the lyrical excess untrimmed, as if the velocity of her emotion strips away the decorum of pop-song structure into something looser. She lets her songs revel in the sprawl.

Lana Del Rey in a green jacket and what looks to be a boa in front of a castle
Lana Del Rey, 2022. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Ernesto S. Ruscio

It is thrilling to listen to this kind of creative freedom. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd brings together the artistic experimentation forged on her sixth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019); the scratched, unhinged wails of ‘Dealer’ from Blue Banisters (2021); the lyrical bravado of ‘White Dress’ in Chemtrails over the Country Club (2021); the spoken word technique of the audio-book version of her poetry volume Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (2020). Now, these tools have been sharpened and the lyrical flourishes pay off: from the wordy title track, where she likens herself to a ‘handmade beauty sealed up by two man-made walls’, to the cheesy but compelling metaphor of grief as a kind of ‘Kintsugi’, another track title. Despite their wordiness, her lyrics are always wrapped within sweet, almost sing-song melodies that belie their awkwardness.

Lana Del Rey with hair pinned back, wearing blazer, looking to the right in a crowd
Lana Del Rey, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer

This is not to say that she’s left behind her characters: ‘A&W’ is a primer on the full range of her musical styles. The title invokes the eponymous root-beer brand – and, as Jack Antonoff, who co-produced the song, revealed in a 2022 Instagram post, an ‘American Whore’ – in a track that transitions confidently from acoustic guitar ballad to slinky trip-hop. ‘I’m invisible, look how you hold me,’ she sings in the second half to a booming beat. We hear more from this tragic female character in ‘Paris, Texas’, where she cuts a lonely figure in small-town America, or in ‘Sweet’, where she’s ‘a different kind of woman’. (‘If you want some basic bitch, go to the Beverly Center and find her.’) These songs are Del Rey’s entries into the American folk canon, alongside writers such as Harry Nilsson and John Denver, both of whom she mentions by name, but her blend of memoir and myth also places her in concert with the autofiction of Ben Lerner or the Californian sociology of Joan Didion.

Her candour is often unnerving, particularly in tracks like ‘Judah Smith Interlude’, which records a sermon from the disgraced celebrity Christian preacher talking about lust and God. The most crucial lyric from this long tirade is at the very end: ‘I used to think my preaching was mostly about You / And you’re not gonna like this, but I’m gonna tell you the truth / I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me.’ There is, perhaps, a way this reference could be read as tongue-in-cheek or critical but, as I soaked in the religious themes of the album, I began to realize that Del Rey may simply be earnestly religious now. As off-putting as this might be to a non-religious person, the music – with its lush swells and gospel citations – compellingly simulates a transcendent experience.

A black and white photograph of Lana Del Rey, her hair in an updo, wearing a sparkly dress, smiling
Lana Del Rey, 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Rich Fury

There’s nothing novel about a songwriter deciding to write about themself. But, for Del Rey, whose early career was plagued by accusations of inauthenticity and performance, this turn to the self brings us to new heights of autobiography, as her songcraft seems to offer startling transparency and vulnerability – for mainstream pop, at least. The last song on the album, ‘Taco Truck x VB’, interpolates ‘Venice Bitch’ from Norman Fucking Rockwell and remixes it into a kind of swaggering rap. The turn back to her own discography – as she implies in the final line of ‘Judah Smith Interlude’ – ultimately makes the album much more about herself than about anyone else. And if that means nothing more than a weird, short remix of an iconic previous work, then that’s for her to say. Del Rey – and maybe God? – are in control now.

Main image: Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, 2023, album artwork. Courtesy: Interscope / Polydor

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.