In the best poem from Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, our narrator goes incognito. She is not Lana Del Rey, the endlessly analyzed songwriter who made some of the last decade’s most influential pop music. Instead, she is a thirtysomething woman in California, signing up for sailing classes under her birth name, Elizabeth Grant. Across “SportCruiser,” a long prose poem that spans six of her debut audiobook’s 39 minutes, she describes her efforts to learn how to sail and fly alongside teachers who are blissfully unaware of her day job as a pop star. In taking these classes, she hopes to better trust her instincts, to more competently navigate the world. It is, as she puts it, a “midlife meltdown navigational exercise in self-examination.”
Taking to the sky in the aftermath of a bad breakup, she suddenly finds herself paralyzed, unsure where to go next. She turns to her instructor and feels only his judgement. “I was horrified,” she says, “Feeling as though I’d somehow been found out.”
She’s talking about taking control of her life, but she’s also speaking to the risks of a project like this one. This poetry collection has been on her mind since the making of last year’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!. In fact, she announced both projects during the same interview in September 2018: “It’s in that vein of deep poetry where anything is allowed and it’s totally free-form,” she said of her book, describing it as an artistic experiment removed from the more laborious world of making records and suggesting that she would probably end up self-publishing it. Nearly two years later, the audiobook is out via Simon & Schuster, with a hardcover edition to follow in the fall (along with vinyl and CD releases). As the de-facto follow-up to the best album of her career, what might have felt like a low-stakes side project now seems more consequential.
In some ways, the timing is perfect. Accompanied by musical burbles from NFR! collaborator Jack Antonoff, ranging from lo-fi and Lynchian (“The Land of 1,000 Fires”) to slow-building and orchestral (“Bare Feet on Linoleum”), the audiobook makes for an introspective and hypnotic listen during a time of widespread solitude. “I’m generally quite quiet/Quite a meditator, actually,” she confesses in the opening poem.
But after the haunted dispatches that filled NFR!, the imagery throughout Violet can feel beneath her: the city of Los Angeles personified as a moody partner vaping beside her in bed; death juxtaposed with SoulCycle and athleisure wear; “Stay on your path/Sylvia Plath.” There are cautionary tales for this type of thing—songwriters who followed their pet subjects to absurd, self-parodic extremes. In these poems, Lana namechecks two of them: Bob Dylan (who, as he was writing the defining music of his career in the ’60s, was also piecing together a notoriously inscrutable book called Tarantula) and Jim Morrison (see: An American Prayer). “Have you ever read the lyrics to ‘People Are Strange’,” Lana says midway through the audiobook, giving voice to the California icon’s skeptics. “He made no sense!”
It’s a funny moment that reminds you how Lana Del Rey’s self-awareness has always been crucial to her art, part of what separates her from imitators in the pop world and beyond. The search for meaning defines these poems. If Lana’s songwriting has often been a place for her narrators to hit rock bottom and offer their barest, most tender thoughts, you get the sense that she sees her poetry as a pathway toward pure enlightenment: “My thoughts are about nothing,” she insists, “and beautiful and for free.”
In these moments when she strives toward clear-eyed revelations, I sometimes miss the real-world specificity of her songwriting. After all, NFR!’s “The greatest” resonates not only for its apocalyptic mood-setting but also for its tangible observations from the sidelines—longing for a specific time and place, worrying about Kanye, tuning in to a livestream. These poems can zoom so far out that they come in danger of floating beyond self-affirmation into nothingness, a risk she confronts in “Tessa DiPietro.” “Maybe an artist has to function a little bit above themselves if they really want to transmit some heaven,” she offers, reflecting on a Doors performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. As she questions why she relates to a songwriter who even her most trusted clairvoyant thinks made no sense, this is as close as she comes to an answer. Each of these poems feels like an attempt at testing her theory—runways she travels in the hopes of achieving some cosmic lift-off.
Which brings us back to flying. There’s a moment in “SportCruiser” where an instructor tells her that, to really zero in on her intuition, the next time she’s doing some mindless errand—say, picking up groceries—she should take a moment in the parking lot to notice the direction of the wind. She laughs because it’s a funny image: a pop star accustomed to dodging paparazzi, kneeling down and squinting among the rows of cars, studying something invisible. Stepping outside herself, Lana sees the task as ridiculous. She considers what the rest of the world might think and understands our response. It is ridiculous. At the same time, she knows the real lesson isn’t to master everything all at once. It’s to stay on the ground, to figure things out, to get a little better every day.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork