There’s a point in every artist’s career where they become so established that they become predictable. It becomes much easier, for instance, to do imitations of their voice or their musical choices. To reach this point, an absurd level of fame, notoriety or a healthy mix of both is required, but once you reach that point, there’s a crossroads to be faced: do you lean into it or make a left turn?
When Lana Del Rey stripped away all the chintzy strings and modern hip hop influences to embrace classic rock, jazz, and Joni Mitchell on 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she finally found the sound that she had been searching for across a decade of public stardom. Leaning on ballads and self-reflection, Del Rey was able to sprawl out in gloriously over the top highs and quiet, mediative lows. It was a record that established her as the pre-eminent piano ballad singer of the modern-day.
But that vocals-and-piano stripped-down aesthetic wore thin on the follow-up, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, especially when there was very little variety between tracks to differentiate them. The apocalyptic imagery, references to California, Femme Fatales, and pill-popping party people all started to feel a bit stale and well-trod, especially as the scope began to shrink to just the bare essentials. Surely another album of the same style would cause a strong groan and a pass from the collective public, right?
Well, all is forgiven on the final song of Blue Banisters, ‘Sweet Carolina’, if only for the line “Crypto forever screams your stupid boyfriend / Fuck you Kevin”. This is the eternal line that Lana Del Rey should always be walking, between modern-day anxiety and nostalgia for long lost time. Writing letters, making fun of babies named after iPhones, all wrapped up in a genuine heartwarming love song. If every song Del Rey put out for the rest of her life was like ‘Sweet Carolina’, with equal amounts of playful vitriol and genuine connection, then she’d be set until those apocalyptic days she keeps referring to actually start crashing down.
Ranking Lana Del Rey’s albums in order of greatness
If only all of Blue Banisters was this intimate and interesting. Unfortunately, most of the album plays like Chemtrails Over the Country Club Part II, although Blue Banisters does feel like the superior record. Tracks like ‘Violets for Roses’, ‘Dealer’, and ‘Nectar of the Gods’ once again find Del Rey at top form, falling in and out of love while reminiscing about past dreams. ‘Arcadia’ and ‘Beautiful’ find Del Rey pulling in a more explicit jazz-influenced direction, with the latter’s ‘Don’t tell me to be glad when I’m sad / I really hate that” basically being Del Rey’s entire M.O. throughout her career. But roughly half the album feels like retreads of more notable cuts from the past: it’s hard to hear “the party is lit” on ‘Thunder’ and not think of “The culture is lit” on ‘The Greatest’. Choose your own adventure.
That’s the danger with the established voice, persona, and style that Del Rey has carved out for herself. Sure, she’s still the best at doing this specific kind of music, but as the spacey synths of NFR! continue to be phased out in favour of using the same piano for every song, Blue Banisters starts to get muddled together in a way that almost makes you long for the maximalist beats and classic Hollywood strings of Born to Die or Paradise. Almost.
Luckily, Del Rey’s writing is still as sharp as ever. Blue Banisters continues to sound as if Del Rey has been listening to nothing but Joni Mitchell over the past five years, and as someone who has admittedly been doing the same, I can’t really criticise her for wanting to make a whole series of piano and acoustic guitar tracks. The secret comes from the ear-catching references, like the shout out to ‘Mr. Brightside’ in ‘Thunder’, or the call back to long-shuttered New York bar Sin-é on ‘Living Legend’.
There’s a toughness to her, a dedication to the writing and musical arrangements that doesn’t seem to care much about, or even acknowledge, the current trends of music. Del Rey seems like she’s done with playing into those modern sounds. Maybe these lines would sound silly coming from anyone else, but Del Rey infuses them with just the right amount of necessary emotion, whether it’s contempt with the former or longing for the latter, to make them work.
And as a whole, that’s what Blue Banisters does: it works. It’s certainly not transcendent or even terribly different from that other album she put out this year. But for someone working at such a feverish pace, it’s telling that the quality of work hasn’t dipped. Perhaps with a longer production period, Del Rey’s next album will take on new sonic territories, and 2021 will be looked back on as her piano balladry years. Who knows, but it’s always worth noting that Lana Del Rey is still putting out good music, even if you pretty much know what’s coming.