When Lana Del Rey released Chemtrails Over The Country Club earlier this year, it felt disappointing. The album was missing the elements that make Del Rey’s music so alluring: powerful vocals, supple instrumentation, charming self-deprecation, witty-yet-wacky lyrics, and the emotional intensity endemic to her songs. It simply didn’t feel worthy of following up the excellent, justly acclaimed Norman Fucking Rockwell!.
But while the world was stuck at home last year, processing grief, heartache, and the pain of being away from loved ones for a seemingly indefinite time, Del Rey tapped into her rawest emotions, crafting songs that take bits from each of her musical eras, and showing a more mature, introspective version of herself as a songwriter. And instead of collaborating yet again with Jack Antonoff, she invited a multitude of producers to contribute—but it’s clear she’s the one in control here.
Blue Banisters starts off strong: “Text Book” tackles both her fraught relationship with her father and her breakup with reality TV star Sean Larkin. It checks all the boxes for a typical Lana Del Rey song—bombastic romantic and familial travails—but it feels sincere and heartfelt. Even more important than being a vulnerable look into Del Rey’s feelings about both relationships dissolving, the song boasts impeccable vocals. It’s a stark contrast against Chemtrails’ opening track, “White Dress,” that had her whisper-singing in a way that didn’t showcase her strengths. And when the tempo changes, Del Rey’s voice adjusts superbly.
The title track also feels like a return to form. The instrumentation is gorgeous but subtle, allowing Del Rey’s voice to shine as she ruminates on conversations with her friend and fellow musician Nikki Lane, and her sister making her a birthday cake. There’s a verse that especially stands out among the others, when she cites Lane: “She said, ‘Most men don’t want a woman / With a legacy, it’s of age.’ She said ‘You can’t be a muse and be happy, too / You can’t blacken the pages with Russian poetry / And be happy.’”
This could be interpreted as the thesis of Banisters. Throughout the record, Del Rey seems conflicted over wanting to settle down and start a family of her own, while still being reminded that as much as she craves a simpler life—with trips to Target and low-key hangouts with friends—she’s among the world’s most recognizable contemporary singers. Similar to Lorde’s acknowledgement on Melodrama’s “Liability,” this is the sound of Del Rey coming to terms with how fame complicates relationships.
It comes up in “Violets For Roses,” where she addresses her partner getting too used to the finer privileges that come with dating her (“You tried to trade in my new truck for Rollses / Don’t forget all of these things that you love are the same things I hate / A simple life, I chose this”). And Del Rey relishes being with someone who isn’t amongst the Tinseltown crowd on “Wildflower Wildfire” (“And baby I, I’ve been running on star drip / IV’s for so long / I wouldn’t know how cruel the world was / Hot fire, hot weather, hot coffee, I’m better / So I turn but I learn it from you, babe”).
In other ways, Banisters is a breakup record. Del Rey went through a much-publicized split during quarantine, sharing a picture on Instagram last year of a voice memo titled “If this is the end…I want a boyfriend.” That memo has turned into “Black Bathing Suit,” yet another track that tackles heartache, but with something both humorous and sweet about it. Like many who spent 2020 lonely, contemplating how much it’d help to have someone there to offer company while the world falls apart, Del Rey craves the same, singing about wanting a boyfriend to “eat ice cream with and watch television” because she’s tired of “this shit.”
The song hearkens back to her Born To Die days, with a chorus proclaiming, “He said I was bad, let me show you how bad girls do / ’Cause no one does it better.” It’s clearly sarcastic, poking fun at how she’s often presented in the media, while feeling she couldn’t be more different than this persona to which she’s been affixed. The track sounds reminiscent of “Blue Jeans” at times, but with an update on her 2011 persona: The old Lana who craved bad boys and complicated men has matured. Now she’s the complicated one, wanting someone to bring stability into her life.
Not every song on Blue Banisters was created in lockdown. “If You Lie Down With Me” was originally written with ex-boyfriend Barrie James O’ Neill, for 2014's Ultraviolence. Thank goodness she didn’t keep this one in the vaults—it’s an alluring number that somehow manages to make trumpets and tuba sound sensual, as Del Rey sings of craving passion, with references to being lit up “like the Fourth of July.” (“Nectar Of The Gods,” also written with O’Neill, tackles similar themes of passionate relationships.)
“Beautiful” lives up to its name, ushering listeners in with twinkling piano, as Lana promises her pain is not in vain: “Let me show you how sadness can turn into happiness / I can turn blue into something / Beautiful, beautiful / Beautiful like you.” Lyrically, it doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the rest of Banisters, but musically, it’s a stunner. Del Rey seems to have figured out that the simpler her instrumentation, the better. Even the small flaw of static popping at the end of the track can’t distract from its strength.
One of the biggest surprises comes with “Dealer,” a duet with Miles Kane that was originally meant to be part of a scrapped collaborative album between Del Rey and The Last Shadow Puppets. Kane’s voice matches Del Rey’s perfectly, stirring curiosity about the record that could’ve been. It’s surprising it wasn’t released as a single: The Song contrasts nicely with the rest of the record, featuring a downtempo hip-hop beat, and livens Banisters up in its sea of ballads.
Some of Del Rey’s best lyrical moments come when she’s singing about those she cares about most: family. She gives a deeper glimpse into her parental troubles on “Wildflower Wildfire,” addressing disappointment in a father who never stepped in to defend her while her mother would rage at her. And closer “Sweet Carolina” is a dreamy lullaby, with the singer assuring her sister that motherhood will work out. But, sweet as it is, she still interjects some of her signature humor, cooing the words “You name your babe Lilac Heaven / After your iPhone 11 / ‘Crypto forever,’ screams your stupid boyfriend / Fuck you, Kevin.” (Apologies to all the Kevins out there—this line will surely get plenty of mileage online.)
While Chemtrails was cause for concern that Del Rey had perhaps lost her magic touch, Banisters is a reminder that when the singer-songwriter is in charge of her vision and fully taps into her emotions, she’s still capable of crafting breathtaking beauty.