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Lana Del Rey in Present Tense

Her ninth album, ‘Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd,’ is sprawling, contemplative, and her most personal to date

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Lana Del Rey was born in Manhattan, but of course that’s not really the point. Neither is the fact that, at the moment of her birth, her parents worked at a mammoth global advertising firm; by the time she could walk and talk, she was upstate in Lake Placid. From there it was an elite boarding school in Connecticut, where she was sent to get sober, then Long Island, where she learned to waitress and play guitar, and finally back to the city: little club shows, philosophy classes during the week. Those performances were under a variety of names; there were demos under still others, including Lizzy Grant, which is more or less what it says on her driver’s license. Little of that matters because little of it exists anymore.

There is a common misconception that Lana Del Rey’s music is, or was, rooted in nostalgia for a specific point, or specific points, in the past. But she’s never conjured other eras—not really. Her evocation of [the Kennedys/Old Hollywood/the narcotized glow of postwar suburbs/New Hollywood] is a collage that triangulates an ecstatic truth. That that truth sometimes lies beneath a line like “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola” simply short-circuited a lot of people’s brains, making them believe that Lana was being not only ironic, but the bad, glib kind of ironic, the kind where the sum of everything is nihilism, is nothing. The point, however, was always the subjectivity, the context collapse, the degradation of an image or an idea over time: the fragment of a fragment, the Xerox of a Xerox. What survives?

And so: California. Though Elizabeth Grant says she came up with her stage name during a series of trips she made to Miami, she’s lived in and written about the West for as long as she’s been in the public eye. “My body is a map of L.A.,” she sings on “Arcadia,” a ballad from 2021’s Blue Banisters. “I’m not from the land of the palms, so I know I can’t stay here,” she concedes, but her “curves, San Gabriel all day / And my lips like the fire licks the bay.” On her latest record, the transplant with an assumed name who rearranges shards of Americana for a living is sunbathing on the bed of the evaporated L.A. River, wearing “nothing but the summer bruises on my knees.”

Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, her third album in 25 months, uses her adopted home’s hidden contours as a metaphor for fault lines deep inside her. Like other Lana LPs, Ocean Blvd is dotted with couplets about being scrutinized and misunderstood by a prying audience or under dive bar lighting. But it’s far more urgently about death—not the romantic death that sometimes hung over her old work, but the death of bodies and families decaying. The title refers to the Jergins Tunnel, which runs underneath a busy intersection in Long Beach and was open from 1927 until 1967, and which still has, per Lana, “mosaic ceilings, painted tiles on the wall.” On the title track, Lana asks the listener to “fuck me to death / Love me until I love myself” before pleading: “Don’t forget me / Don’t forget me.” The terror of impermanence, the porousness of memory—this is what keeps Lana up at night, the blue glow of a Bible app illuminating an otherwise empty room.

The album opens with “The Grants,” in which Lana makes explicit the spiritual lens and corporeal stakes she’s playing with. (“My pastor told me when you leave, all you take … is your memory,” she sings, “and I’m gonna take minе of you with me.”) “The Grants” is contemplative but hopeful, a piano number that swells in its final two minutes and folds in a gorgeous choral arrangement—a descriptor that could also apply, verbatim, to the album’s title track, which comes next. It’s an interesting tonal note to strike once, an odd one to repeat at the top of a sequence; it feels instead like a resolution. Soon, fittingly, this evaporates.

Long stretches of Ocean Blvd—a nearly 80-minute album that uses its length well—are somber. We seldom move above a low mid-tempo; Lana seldom seems to have both feet down on earth. By the middle of the track list, things have grown almost unbelievably sad. “Kintsugi,” which begins with the line “There’s a certain point the body can’t come back from,” is a meditation not just on deaths, but on specific deaths—familial deaths, ones she could attend and ones she couldn’t. She’s heartbroken, but soon she’s flummoxed, too:

They sang folk songs from the ’40s
Even the 14-year-old knew “Froggy Came A-Courtin’”
How do my blood relatives know all of these songs?
I don’t know anyone left to know songs that I sing

That shock—“How do my blood relatives know all these songs?”—seems odd, at first, for someone whose own work appears to be in such constant conversation with the past. But again: She has never been one for revival. She traffics in detritus, and no one has to ask why little remnants of Dylan and Elvis are lying around. What has animated and elevated Lana’s music over the past half decade is a curiosity about what of her might cross the next threshold—not what she might leave behind, but what she’ll be able to take with her.

As a display of technique, Ocean Blvd is often staggering. Lana is still finding new hitches in her cadence and delivery to accentuate emotions in her lyrics that would be inaccessible to a less inventive vocalist. (There is the moment on “Candy Necklace” when she sings, “Sittin’ on the sofa, feelin’ supеr suicidal / Hate to say the word but, baby, hand on the Bible / I do” in a noncommittal slur that, if dialed a hair in one direction or the other, would seem pat or put on, but instead sends a cold bolt through your nervous system.) Her writing is well observed, maybe more so than ever: On “Sweet,” she’s “hiking up Griffith / Thinking about who was sad and what didn’t / Get said in the Midwest” before she lashes out: “If you want some basic bitch, go to the Beverly Center and find her.” It’s funny, but it isn’t a bit: With Lana, the sincerity has been the provocation all along.

Speaking of provocations. The album’s centerpiece is the seven-minute “A&W,” an abbreviation for “American Whore,” on which tangents like “If I told you that I was raped / Do you really think that anybody would think / I didn’t ask for it?” commingle with the image of a young Lana—young Elizabeth, even—doing cartwheels in front of a home video camera. In one sense, the song’s perspective is omniscient: It traces the private experience of being a public person, her body scrutinized, her being reduced to a joke or a JPEG. And still, she revels in how fast and loose she can play with fact. “I say I live in Rosemead,” she croons—“really, I’m at the Ramada / It doesn’t really matter, doesn’t really, really matter.” Toward the end of the song’s first movement, just after the passage about being misbelieved, she describes God as a charlatan who “puts the shower on while he calls me.” “I’m invisible,” she sings, “look how you hold me.”

Engrossing as the album is for its first 50-plus minutes, Ocean Blvd falters around the three-quarter mark. A pair of duets, with Father John Misty and Jack Antonoff (who coproduces 11 songs and writes on six), feel like relics from less focused versions of this record—exercises, schmaltzy and gestural, hollower than everything that surrounds them. The back-to-back suite would be unimpressive in any context, but on Ocean Blvd it is especially unwelcome for how it punctures the dream state Lana had lulled you into, a liminal space between life and what’s next that’s now too crowded. When the album pulls out of that nosedive, it smartly avoids the temptation to recreate what was lost: The indulgently auto-tuned “Fishtail,” the Tommy Genesis duet “Peppers,” and “Taco Truck x VB” close out Ocean Blvd with more punch, drums, and buoyancy. The “VB” in that final song’s title stands for Lana’s beloved “Venice Bitch,” whose chorus reappears as if on a middle-of-the-night radio mix show, Lana’s own catalog treated as raw material to be recontextualized at a whim.

When it comes to the act of postmodern assembly, Lana is clear that she was the one drawing blueprints and stitching scraps together. See this passage from “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing”:

I know they think that it took thousands of people
To put me together again like an experiment
Some big men behind the scenes
Sewing Frankenstein black dreams into my songs
But they’re wrong

Read one way, this is simply a claim of ownership over the aesthetic direction of her early music. Read another, all the experimentation and Frankensteining is still happening—it’s just being directed by her.

While that eventually joyous opener, “The Grants,” does seem to tap into something higher, its beginning is decidedly human. Lana decided to leave in the mix a take of two singers fucking up and then stringing each other through the correct performance of the chorus as written, signifying first so they can embody later. This underlines not only the difficulty involved in pulling together a style that is often relegated to a lower order of creativity, but also the fact that each intertextual nod is a deliberate choice, not an unconscious bubbling. All the imagery Lana leans on might be sticky in the culture for a reason, but she’s been careful to arrange it just so. As she sings at one point on “Fishtail”: “Palm trees in black and white / I like to watch them sway.”

It is not altogether unusual for memories of Lana’s to intermingle with memories from the broader unconscious. But there’s one song on Ocean Blvd that sees her past irrupt onto the page, fracturing everything that came before. “Fingertips,” which comes almost exactly in the album’s middle, hears her plead with both of her younger siblings by name: with brother Charlie to quit smoking, with sister Caroline to assure her that Caroline’s baby is doing all right. (This second question is itself interrupted by an intrusive thought: a memory that Lana’s been told she’s not fit to carry a child. “I guess I’ll be fine,” she sings to herself, unconvincingly.) From there, “Fingertips” becomes simultaneously the album’s least and most spiritual song—least because it invokes the “cocktail of things that twists neurons inside” and the extinction of telomeres, most because the succession of deaths and near deaths it recounts do not seem exactly settled in Lana’s mind.

It’s as if she can still bargain for her uncle, who hanged himself “real high / In the national park sky,” or for a high school boyfriend. “All I wanted to do was kiss Aaron Greene and sit by / The lake,” she sings of the latter, “have a babe at 16 in the town I was born in, and die.” She recounts the scene when she learned about her uncle: over the phone in Monaco, where she half heard over a bad cell connection, allowed herself “two seconds to cry” in the shower, then “had to sing for the prince.” All of this—the premature deaths, but also their connection to water—is punctuated by the revelation of a teenaged suicide attempt, during which she was pulled naked from a pool by the neighbors who happened upon her. “I give myself two seconds to breathe,” she sings at the song’s end, allowing the literal, linear horror of life to creep in, “and go back to being a serene queen.”

Almost everywhere else on Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, as in her catalog writ large, flashes of the past, real and imagined, collide with one another in an unending present. But unlike the two albums that followed her 2019 masterpiece, Norman Fucking Rockwell, all of the songs on Ocean Blvd were recorded in the year or so before its release. The vaults have been tapped, at least for now—this, instead, is from the vein.

Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.