The singer pours her soul out over an hour and twenty minutes in her ninth studio album
“Just another folk song, but anyway/I try so hard, but that’s okay,” sings Lana del Rey towards the end of ‘Kintsugi’. She seems to be referencing accusations of repetitiveness, a worry that people might tune into her album, admittedly heavy with piano ballads, only to complain that it all sounds a bit similar.
In context, these lyrics are also a little funny. They’re preceded by a six-minute examination of grief, family and the resilience of the human spirit – an epic of a ballad that sees del Rey alone at her piano, resolving that, as in the Japanese art form of kintsugi, we end up more beautiful for having been broken a few times. “That’s how the light gets in,” she sings. It’s ‘just another folk song’ in the same sense that del Rey is ‘just another singer’.
Del Rey has always had a distinctive sound, but Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd takes her sonic cohesion to new levels. The large majority of the album could be played by del Rey in her living room, with distant strings and synths and occasional beats just the cherry on top. It’s such smooth listening that the one track that does take a bold departure from the rest – ‘Peppers’ with Canadian rapper Tommy Genesis – is almost a jump scare. Much like her earlier ‘folk song’ lyric, the hip-hop track is another clever wink from del Rey. She can do it all, if you ask her to. She just likes doing this.
Much of the album is the marrying of two identities: Lana del Rey, the recording artist, and Elizabeth Grant, the woman. They’re not opposite sides of the same coin, del Rey insists, but one entirely whole human being. This world that she’s constructed over nine albums, of sweet things and white cloth and older lovers and jarring swear words, is hers, despite what others may accuse her of.
“I know that they think thousands of people put me together like an experiment,” she sings in ‘Grandfather Please Stand On The Shoulders Of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing’. It isn’t true.
Del Rey knows that her appearance and aesthetic has sometimes prevented her from being wholly understood. She references it in the album’s title – the walled-up, hidden beauty of the Jergins Tunnel, wanting desperately to be seen. “Don’t forget me like the tunnel under Ocean Boulevard,” she pleads. In ‘A&W’, a tale of the slippery slope from neediness into sex addiction, she wonders if anyone would believe her now if she ever said she was taken advantage of. “I mean, look at my hair,” she sings. “Look at the length of it and the shape of my body.” Later on: “Did you know that a singer could still be/Looking like a sidepiece at thirty-three?”
In some ways, low self-esteem and unempathetic men are del Rey staples. But in Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel…, del Rey does what she has never done and takes the listener behind the curtain, to have a peek at the creative process. ‘The Grants’ and ‘Jon Batiste Interlude’ see her laughing with collaborators. We hear artists correcting each other or asking, “how about this?”. Another thing that makes her laugh is a sermon from televangelist Judah Smith on God’s creative genius and grand design, which comprises track five of the album. She writes love songs for her friends (‘Margaret’, an ode to Jack Antanoff’s wife). She describes how, two hours before playing for the Prince of Monaco, she received family news that made her sit in the shower and cry.
It’s her most vulnerable record, one in which we might interpret some post-pandemic reach for connection. Whilst del Rey gets increasingly self-referential as the album continues, ending with a reworked version of Normal F*cking Rockwell’s ‘Venice Bitch’, she’s also more open than she ever has been. ‘Fingertips’, which hits just past the album’s halfway point, is an extraordinary stream of consciousness, in which del Rey speaks to her siblings and parents, wonders if she’ll ever have children, and monologues openly about the grief she carries. She’s something more three-dimensional than the girl who gave us ‘Born To Die’, but she’s no less akin to her.
It’s a journey of self-discovery that ends us back in the middle of her discography, in candy necklaces and illicit affairs, and a nickname that sounds suspiciously like ‘Lolita’. Del Rey wants us to see the whole of her, but she also wants us to know that this is what she has always been, this girl in a white dress waiting to be kissed. It may be a stylised self-portrait, but she was always the one holding the pen.