Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (Lana Del Rey) – music review

At several points on this monumental 9th album from singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey, she reports that “When you know, you know.” Yet after numerous listens to this album that no less than pop superstar Taylor Swift recently described as “brilliant” and “extraordinary,” adding that her collaborator on the song “Snow on the Beach” from her last album is one of “the best that we have,” I’ve been left to conclude that maybe I just don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still just as taken with her luscious voice and melodic sensibilities as I was when I discovered her whip-smart and funny 2019 release, Norman F*ing Rockwell, a pop classic, it’s just that she discloses so much about herself and her intimate relationships, her family, and her history in the at times overly wordy poetry and prose of the 14 musical tracks here, that it gets lost in translation.

No doubt, the guiding metaphor in her lyrical approach is suggested in the album’s title track, her inner thoughts, ideas, and feelings have been hidden like the “mosaic ceilings, painted tiles on the wall” of that “tunnel under Ocean Boulevard,” but the artist feels like a “handmade beauty sealed up by two man-made walls.” She wants to know “when’s it going to be my turn?” Well, on track after track here, she’s taking her turn to tell it how it is, but it feels like a lot. A whole lot.

She’s ready to reveal it all, leave nothing to the imagination, as she sings in “Peppers”: “I take off all my clothes, dance naked for the neighbors/I’m like, “Fuck it, gonna give a show,” I open up the blinds.” In “The Grants” and “Fingertips” she goes so far inside her thoughts and feelings about her family that it’s hard to make out the major themes or significant points in the firehose flow of verbiage. As in “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing,” she may indeed by praying for the spirit of her deceased Granddad to watch over her Dad when he’s out fishing on the ocean, but the verses are wrapped up with restoring slights against her reputation and assuring her listeners of her “good intentions.”

And is this all self-revelation, or fantasy, or social commentary, or all of the above? In “A&W,” which stands for “the experience of being an American whore,” is she deconstructing the way women are treated in society or is she confessing to some sort of sex addiction, did you mean to say she’s been raped even though she won’t testify? Didn’t she just do that? And if that’s the point she wants to make, does that whole funky “Jimmy, Jimmy, cocoa puff” section at the end work counter to the intentions of the first part? As I said, maybe I just don’t know.

For instance, why include a 4 and a half minute of a sermon by celebrity pastor Judah Smith’s as an “interlude”? If the point is his final observation that “I used to think my preaching was mostly about you/And you’re not going to like this, but I’m gonna tell you the truth/I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me,” why not just include that 20 seconds? The second interlude is a jam with Jon Batiste and the studio players and singers having fun, recorded likely at some point in the session for “Candy Necklace,” where the pianist plays an intricate solo, is at least musical in some sense, but adds little to the proceedings.

But most of the music here, finds Del Rey in her “Sweet” spot, as it were. Lingering piano ballads, cinematic orchestrations dominate, her voice in fine, emotive form. At midpoint in the record, she references “Kintsugi,” the Japanese artform that takes a broken piece of pottery or porcelain and uses gold, or another precious metal to mend the break. She references the famous Leonard Cohen line from his song “Anthem,” that “there is a crack, a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” The point of the repaired art piece is that the wounds and breaks are not hidden by some secret invisible superglue, rather it’s an act of revelation and transformation that extends the beauty by taking the break seriously and adding to it. She revisits that idea with Father John Misty adding harmony vocals on the choruses of “Let the Light In,” the one song where acoustic guitar is prominent.

In addition to Batiste and Misty, “Paris, Texas,” which celebrates small American communities with names borrowed from famous European cities like Florence, Alabama, and Venice, California, while interpolating a SYML song, “I Wanted to Leave,” who also plays on the track. “Margaret” is written with and sung in duet with her producer Jack Antonoff as his band Bleachers, about his fiancé. “Peppers,” the one fully modern pop-oriented track, appropriately about listening to the Red Hot Chili’s with her boyfriend, also includes Tommy Genesis and a hook from her song about “Angelina,” as in Jolie. And in the closing song, “Taco Truck x VB,” after the front half’s jazzy guitar, she revisits her own song “Venice Bitch,” from her Rockwell album.

Throughout the album, well at least on the 14 songs, there are moments of lush, musical beauty, like those vocal harmonies that open the album and “The Grants.” The orchestration here is much like the Father John Misty tracks, and they work well with Del Rey’s voice and melodic structures. Her constant name dropping of pop cultural references are a hoot, or frustrating as they send you to Google, but either way she strikes one as a serious artist delivering something of depth and long-lasting worth. Several have declared it’s her masterpiece, and they’re not entirely wrong, as there’s an artful, substantive vein that runs throughout these musical tracks. Time will tell. But I think I’m going to have to delete that sermon interlude, for sure.

Brian Q. Newcomb
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