Lana Del Rey, Blue Banisters, review: perhaps we don’t know this star as well as we thought

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Lana Del Rey's Blue Banisters
Lana Del Rey's Blue Banisters

Over the last 18 months, Lana Del Rey has weathered more than a mere pandemic. Having tiptoed the line between controversy and credibility since the beginning of her career, she suddenly began making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

First, she posted footage of clearly identifiable looters during a Black Lives Matter protest then later issued a rambling, defensive statement answering claims that she had glamourised abuse by questioning the feminist stance of other female artists (most of whom were women of colour). More ludicrously, she was pilloried for wearing the wrong kind of face mask to meet fans at a book-signing late last year. Anyone with a modicum of humility, or a passing interest in self-preservation, might have deleted their social-media accounts and lain low for a while, hoping the world would move on.

Del Rey has done the opposite. Blue Banisters is her second album release in just seven short months, a defiant statement that it’s still business as usual for the LA-based singer-songwriter. In fact, after a decade at the mercy of other people’s perceptions of her, she’s no longer willing to be a guest star in her own story. This eighth album is the freest Del Rey has yet sounded, both musically and lyrically. If March’s Chemtrails over the Country Club saw her biting back at criticism and wondering whether fame had all been worth it, this record feels like her letting go, rising above the noise and acknowledging the things that really matter: her sister, her friends, her own sense of self.

Obviously, Del Rey is as much at the mercy of pandemic-induced reflection as any of us. Blue Banisters is firmly rooted in real time, mentioning girls “runnin’ round in summer dresses / with their masks off” and bookshops opening (in Violets For Roses), even namechecking quarantine and Zoom on stand-out track Black Bathing Suits when she admits ruefully “if this is the end, I want a boyfriend”. She even refers explicitly to attending a Black Lives Matter protest in the atmospheric opener, Textbook.

Other snapshots of Del Rey’s reality are more typically poetic: dried flowers on a dresser in the title track, sheets that smell like gardenias in Wildflower Wildfire and whiskey breath in If You Lie Down With Me. The references fuse the backdrop of a confusing world with a crumbling relationship as Del Rey falls in love, moves on and asserts herself when someone tries to change her.

But as the album progresses, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is Del Rey’s way of consciously uncoupling from us, too – from the critics, the opinions and incessant judgements. Violets For Roses may be a plaintive, piano-backed country ballad but its lyrics tell a different story with Del Rey repeating, nursery-rhyme style, “Ever since I fell out of love with you, I fell back in love with me”. Equally, Black Bathing Suit might sound like classic, woozy Del Rey, but its final moments could only appear on Blue Banisters, with the vocals unravelling dramatically as she reminds us wryly that the negativity hasn’t harmed her career one bit: “Your interest really made stacks out of it for me / So thanks for that.”

Brave, happy and free: Blue Banisters feels like Del Rey's most personal album yet
Brave, happy and free: Blue Banisters feels like Del Rey's most personal album yet

It’s just as adventurous musically. Though Del Rey’s trademark cinematic sensuality still casts its sepia glow over the album, it’s more immediate than Chemtrails. Her sound seems braver and less controlled too, perhaps because long-term producer Jack Antonoff has been replaced by a gaggle of different co-writers and producers, including Zachary Dawes and Drew Erickson. Unusually, a handful of songs are also much older – off-cuts from her 2014 record Ultraviolence – which make the album a little less cohesive than some of her earlier work yet give it a bolder air that feels almost (whisper it) playful.

Freeing herself from the world’s critical eye, Del Rey has seized the chance to experiment with her writing and, crucially, her vocals. On the soporific, bluesy Dealer, she partners with The Last Shadow’s Puppets’ Miles Kane to change the pace and howl angrily, “I don’t wanna give you nothing / Cause you never give me nothing back.” On the magnificent single Arcadia, she sounds better than she ever has, while the closing piano-backed lullaby Sweet Carolina is breathtakingly tender, dedicated to her sister as she prepares to give birth.

Del Rey may have written before about politics, fame and the powerplay in relationships, but this feels like her most personal album yet, offering a real insight into this most mysterious of artists and her reflections on her life right now. As she notes tellingly at one point: “I guess I’m complicated.”

It feels like Del Rey’s way of reminding us we still don’t know as much about her as we like to think. Blue Banisters hints, tantalisingly, that there is far more to reveal, while putting us firmly in our place. Make no mistake about it: Del Rey will do it all strictly on her own terms.

Blue Banisters by Lana Del Rey is released today on Interscope Records and Polydor Records