Lana Del Rey's 'Blue Banisters' Delivers Elizabeth Grant, Unfettered
Published Oct 21, 2021Everything Lana Del Rey does is cinematic and with careful intention; she's spent so much of her career crafting and redefining personas, constantly mediating herself. Her eighth studio album, Blue Banisters, is accordingly cinematic and controlled, but this time around, the control is geared toward being carefully unmediated, toward telling stories of her real past. This album is pure autobiography and that's what makes it all the more sad, bluer than anything else Del Rey has ever produced.
With Blue Banisters, Del Rey gives us Elizabeth Grant, unfettered: an impassioned woman whose façade is cracking at the edges as she remembers her traumas, like a tired lounge singer jaded by the nightclub's smoke. While her previous albums dealt in a sly, winking rambunctiousness, here, a tired sadness that nonetheless is capable of unbridled love (both fierce and gentle) runs lazily through the album, uncaring, rewriting, allowing for self-corrections and cognitive dissonances, of walking forward and then walking back. This album rings vulnerable, like a breakup album, vacillating between self-love and longing. "Do you think if I go blonde we could get our old love back?" she wonders in "Text Book." A meandering and messy, but still stunning, oscillation between cradling love, frustrated but complacent anger, a sharp sense of humour, and dejected jealousy make for an album that ultimately hopes to be a balm for your blues. It seems that the fucked-up-ness of the world has finally gotten to Del Rey.
Del Rey said that Blue Banisters — her second album of 2021, following March's Chemtrails over the Country Club — does nothing more than tell her story, and boy did she mean it. Where 2019's Norman Fucking Rockwell! was — quite literally — an exclamation, Blue Banisters is a sigh. If in previous works she's looking for America, here she seems to have found it and is underwhelmed and scared, as though realizing it was always with her, which it was, in her past. That being said, this album also continues NFR!'s pastoral work through piano ballads and brassy folk, this time coalescing the two into a weary, nightclub jazz. Taking what was started with NFR! to the next level by coming back down to herself, away from personas and façade and types of women to something seemingly organic, whose timelessness smuggles in the contemporary — there are references to the pandemic, girls without masks — this is Del Rey showing us she can be just as diaristic as Sylvia Plath, she can be Elizabeth Grant for us. You can discern this earthiness from the names of the tracks on the album itself: names of flowers ("Wildflower Wildfire," "Cherry Blossom"), events in weather ("Thunder"), everyday items ("Black Bathing Suit"), things platitudinous and simple ("Text Book," "Arcadia," "Beautiful").
The most glamorous-sounding track is "Nectar of the Gods," whose name suggests heaven — but don't be fooled. "I used to dream about people like you, now I don't know why / I used to sing about people like you, now I just get high," Del Rey's voice confides in a tone more sober than the baby voice she might lapse into were this Born to Die. This kind of tired sadness undergirds the entire album; this song, talking about being "fucking crazy," had the potential to be like "Ride" but acoustic, pared back and meditative — all hushed croonings and brassy plucking.
There's a sense of paradise lost and equilibrium found in Blue Banisters. Not as glamorous as her other work and not as prone to glitzy name dropping, this album is also more academic in the sense that it contains fewer colloquialisms — though still very many "fucks" — and more literary stylings as she reckons with her past, which refuses to be buried, slipping through to the surface as is its wont during much time spent alone. On the title track, references to Russian poetry come through a voice that puckers against the mic — unprocessed, raw, unaffected, and so, so beautiful. We learn about the women in Del Rey's life, her mother, her sisters, and then there's her father, too; all of them working to teach us more about Grant.
On "Wildflower Wildfire," heartbreaking confessions bleed through even more. Though each track contains the superfluousness Del Rey is known for, Blue Banisters also has a shopworn loneliness to it. "Wildflower Wildfire" best exemplifies this: it's atmospherically lush, heady like the gardenias she sings about, but then she says, "Here's the deal, my father never stepped in when his wife would rage at me, so I ended up awkward but sweet. [...] Comfortably numb, but with lithium came poetry." The baby voice is gone but the violence is still there — Grant's voice cracks instead and it sounds like she's too inured to the pain to sing through tears. These songs are most reminiscent of Del Rey's quieter, more sweetly romantic songs like "Lucky Ones" off Born to Die and the questioning inflections in tracks off Ultraviolence, like "Old Money" and the title track, all three of whose shades can be heard from Blue Banisters' opening moments.
None of the tracks on Blue Banisters contain the anthemic hooks found in her earlier work; rather, it's all rambling images and the kinds of poetic turns you'd find in an indie New York litmag. There's a stir-crazy madness to this album. Listen to "Black Bathing Suit," whose end crescendos with a clanging, twinkling cacophony. This album is delicate by virtue of its intimacy, but also sturdy for this same reason. It's crafted with confessional piano and weeping violins, in turn balletic and weighty as a funereal organ march, and they work in a muted concert to showcase Del Rey's poetry and stunning voice. "Dealer" is a showstopping effort wherein Del Rey carries her voice to the edge of madness in a way she's never done before, like a pained wail out of a Sophoclean tragedy.
Though blue, there is much hope in this album, so much attempt at finding beauty in the organic relationships with her sisters and everyday objects, in the fact of feeling itself, and in the ability to love. Each track is full of a kind of love that, though tired, is still tender, as though rejoicing at the fact that it exists at all. On "Beautiful," she says, "I can turn blue into something beautiful, beautiful, beautiful like you." Though still world-weary as ever, Del Rey is, on Blue Banisters, for the first time diaristic and ad hoc. This album is a stunner. (Interscope/Polydor)