Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd review: Alluring, introspective and a little long
“I’d go on a seven-minute rant with a repetitive melody,” Lana Del Rey recently told Billie Eilish in an interview about her writing process for Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. Indeed, many of the songs on her newly released ninth album do fit that description. They are long and can be repetitive, but truly, a rant has never sounded so alluring.
The six-time Grammy nominee, née Elizabeth Grant, returns this week with her latest album, two years on from a double release in 2021 (Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Banisters). Across eight records and 11 years, Del Rey has built a world and iconography of her own. Hers is one of cherry cola cans, white sundresses, sycamore trees, seedy dive bars and American flags that fly both defiantly and depressingly. More controversial in the Lana lexicon are the deadbeat boyfriends with fast fists that feel like kisses. (Her previous record, she said, was a defensive work written in response to criticisms, including glamourising domestic abuse.)
Her sweeping, layered ninth album is more ruminative than reactive: questions of family and legacy, memory and death swirl around one another until they’re one and the same. To hear Del Rey tell it, Ocean Blvd is “straight vibing”, an exquisitely sung account of her innermost thoughts. And with them comes a new level of specificity. “The Grants” is a testament to that. The album’s opening track is steeped in memory – practically sepia-toned as she recalls “my sister’s firstborn child” and “my grandmother’s last smile” in one heart-pinching line. Lyrics on this album tend to rebound off its walls; echoes of one song appear in another and another. Del Rey’s question in “The Grants” – “Do you think about heaven?/ Do you think about me?” – rings in the next title track, as she implores again and again, “Don’t forget me”.
“Ocean Blvd” is a patient, building ballad that shouts out not only a Harry Nilsson song but a timecode (2.05) within it during which his voice breaks with emotion. There are comparable moments all over her own record. “Ocean Blvd” enters with a stoic piano and swelling strings. It’s impossible, though, not to bend your ear towards her muted breathing; that whoosh of air is like hearing the inside of a conch shell and imagining waves.
It’s an album populated with references. There’s the same kind that her work is always chock full of (John Denver, Forensic Files, a Marielle Heller movie, a three-star hotel chain, the Griffith observatory all make an appearance) but as on 2021’s Blue Banisters, there are personal details, too. Del Rey sings about her grandpa, her brother, her dad, her sister, her sister’s baby, her Uncle Dave. Meanwhile, the record’s themes of legacy spiral into questions of motherhood. “Will the baby be alright/ Will I have one of mine/ Can I handle it even if I do?” she asks on the tender, orchestra-backed “Fingertips”. That song, “Did You Know”, and three others were written in one sitting with ex-boyfriend, director and cinematographer Mike Hermosa, who features as a producer on the album. Del Rey has said it was her familiarity with Hermosa that allowed her to open up as much as she did; they wrote the songs together in her living room on voice memos.
None of this is to say that Del Rey has put away her box of Lana-isms for good. Brazen lyrics such as “F*** me to death/ Love me until I love myself” would feel easily at home on her 2012 trip-hop debut Born to Die. Her winking braggadocio is intact on “Sweet” as she jeers “If you want some basic b****, go to the Beverly Centre and find one”. Images of “bruised knees”, “palm trees in black and white” and “skipping rope in the bayou” crop up, as predictable and familiar as Del Rey calling her paramour “baby”.
Did You Know is a 77-minute-long endeavour. And with a hefty chunk of its 16 tracks dedicated to similar swooning balladry, time doesn’t exactly fly. There is some pleasure to be taken in the trance-like way these songs flow into one another, but watching the tide of even the most beautiful ocean becomes boring. Thankfully, the water does get choppy at times. Take “A&W”, its title both a reference to an American fast food chain and an acronym for American Whore. What begins with the soft strum of a guitar and the heavy step of a piano is a folky reverie not unlike those found on 2021’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club. The masterfully slow fade at its four-minute mark, however, gives way to a sleazy, synthy bassline and later, an adult-rated interpolation of a 1959 doo-wop sample best known from Tom Hanks’s kids’ movie Big. The second half of the seven-minute track plays like an alien transmission from an entirely different Lana era. It’s thrilling – a testament to how an artist’s so-called eras are only as rigid as they want to be. “Fishtail” and “Peppers” – which features a sampled hook from a live performance by Canadian rapper Tommy Genesis – are similar treats. The latter track is a swaggering rap mashed-up into psych-rock. If only Del Rey’s voice wasn’t completely drowning in reverb.
This being a Lana record, a lot of it is about love. The familial kind, the platonic kind, the romantic kind. Album highlight “Margaret” is a pure paean to the latter. With its lovey-dovey lyrics (“’Cause when you know you know”) about finding The One, it is heartbreaking to learn that the song isn’t about Del Rey herself. It was written for her producer, the Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, and his actor fiancée, Margaret Qualley. Elsewhere, there is love of the religious kind. Del Rey, who was raised Catholic, enlists the help of gospel singers in a number of songs, as well as pastor-to-the-stars Judah Smith, whose four-minute sermon forms one of the album’s two interludes. Jon Batiste heads up the other.
The album ends appropriately on “Taco Truck x VB”. Another reworking of a past Lana era. This time, it’s more explicit. Here, her nine-minute soft-rock lullaby “Venice B****” from 2018’s high-water mark Norman F***ing Rockwell! gets a grimier, trappier remix. Admittedly, there is something of the original lost in this new version, but it’s an audacious thing to sample yourself – and with a back catalogue as deep and sprawling as Del Rey’s undoubtedly is, it’s ripe for the picking.