Bare, bleak, sometimes baffling, often beautiful: Blue Banisters brings Lana Del Rey down to Earth.
Just the day after the release of her seventh studio album Chemtrails Over The Country Club in March of this year, Lana Del Rey announced her next project Rock Candy Sweet would be out in June. Then postponed until July and retitled Blue Banisters, the album was teased with a collection of singles, before being postponed again until ‘later later’.
Arriving so soon after Chemtrails and Del Rey’s 2020 poetry collection, it was easy not to expect Blue Banisters to yield the singer’s best work. But despite its somewhat chaotic promotion, when it was finally released in late October, the elegant and idiosyncratic record proves to be a worthy addition to Del Rey’s singular discography.
In a departure from the lustrous grandeur that defined Chemtrails and Del Rey’s masterful 2019 record Norman Fucking Rockwell, Blue Banisters is pristine and delicate. Tracks like ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Sweet Carolina’ are threaded with fragile piano ornaments, reminiscent of vocal jazz classics, while the title track is glazed with a cold, minimal ambient hush. On ‘Dealer’, Del Rey is joined by vocalist Miles Kane of the Last Shadow Puppets in a shadowy, lo-fi soundscape.
But the record has its bursts of colour too, some more welcome than others, with ‘Thunder’ bringing in a gospel choir, and ‘Living Legend’, a wailing guitar solo. Among the more jarring surprises is the horn section which closes ‘If You Lie Down With Me’. Fading gradually into the tinny warble of a gramophone, it’s a fittingly vintage embellishment for Del Rey but uncharacteristically jaunty.
Nowhere is Del Rey’s creative decision making more baffling, however, than in the interlude titled ‘The Trio’. This unnecessary instrumental clumsily pastes a screeching synthesised violin playing a repeated phrase taken from composer Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Trio’ on top of a trap beat and a booming bassline and the question is really just, why?
But the most significant and compelling deviation from Del Rey’s previous style is the variation she brings to her vocals. Though the self-described ‘sad girl’ still makes ample use of her signature lower-register drawl, she also showcases heretofore hidden flexibility and range, desperately wailing the chorus to ‘Dealer’ and soaring upwards in an angelic vibrato on ‘Sweet Carolina’.
‘Arcadia’ is one of her finest performances, the subtle warm glow of horns backing her clear, gliding soprano as she sings of her love for Los Angeles: ‘Arcadia, all roads that lead to you as integral to me as arteries / that pump the blood that flows straight to the heart of me.’
These profoundly personal lyrics are, in turn, the lifeblood of the album. Del Rey’s lyrics have always been reflective but Hollywood glamour and nostalgic Americana have previously seeped so deep into her lines that the grit of honesty and genuine confession has always been smoothed over. But on Blue Banisters, as well namedropping 20th century greats, including Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Joan Baez, Del Rey pays tribute to her friend and mentor Jane Powers and to her sister Caroline Grant. Meanwhile, the track ‘Cherry Blossom’ is a gentle lullaby addressed to an imagined future child.
Family is a core theme on the record, looking both forwards and backwards, as Del Rey grapples with her complicated relationship with her parents. ‘My father never stepped in when his wife would rage at me, / so I ended up awkward but sweet,’ she divulges on ‘Wildfire Wildflower’.
Not every lyric comes across this open and vulnerable. On opener ‘Textbook’ Del Rey recalls, ‘and there we were screamin’ “Black Lives Matter”/ in a crowd like an open river, / and I saw you saw who I am’. Given how insensitively Del Rey has dismissed accusations of racism in the past, this line unfortunately reads as a further empty deflection of these criticisms.
But where no one can accuse her of insincerity is on ‘Beautiful’. This crystalline composition with featherweight jazz stylings is fittingly the most beautiful song on the album and serves as something of a mission statement for Del Rey’s art. Over ethereal scatterings of piano, she defends her indulgence in melancholy: ‘Let me run with the wolves, let me do what I do, / let me show you how sadness can turn into happiness, / I can turn blue into something beautiful.’
With this divine piece of music, Del Rey and producer Drew Erickson set out exactly what makes Blue Banisters worth listening to. It’s a lonely, sparse and understated record with none of the glamour of Del Rey’s most acclaimed work, but it is quietly, undeniably beautiful.
Listen to Blue Banisters: