Early in Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, Lana Del Rey highlights a sermon from megachurch pastor-to-the-stars Judah Smith. In the most Del Rey fashion, it was clearly recorded on her phone during a service — you can hear her and a friend’s giggles bump up in the foreground, above Smith’s projecting voice and a piano instrumental that keeps it moving. Smith proselytizes about love and lust, reading from the Book of Psalms. His presence feels strikingly superfluous in the context of Del Rey’s quite heavy ninth album (especially when you think too hard on the ickiness of his former views on abortion and homosexuality). But the way he fits into her vision becomes clearer in his final two lines:
“I used to think my preaching was mostly about You,” he says in a conspiratorial tone to what is likely a room of hundreds, if not thousands, of congregants, ”And you’re not gonna like this, but I’m gonna tell you the truth: I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me.”
The core of Ocean Blvd is Del Rey trying to get a closer look at herself, flipping the story as we have come to understand (and maybe even misunderstand) about what she’s trying to tell us. Through stories of her family, a failed relationship, her conflicting desire of being both seen and hidden, Del Rey exposes more than just who she is, but why she is who she is.
Family is a key theme on Ocean Blvd, with Del Rey processing grief, loneliness and heartbreak in her familial history. She fittingly kicks off the whole thing with “The Grants,” a somber reflection on loss and grief that she delivers with the help of Melodye Perry, Pattie Howard and Shikena Jones, who all appeared in the 2013 documentary on back-up singers called 20 Feet From Stardom. On “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” she ponders the after-life, offering a prayer of protection for her father Rob Grant from her late grandfather. “Kintsugi” tackles the horrific experience of watching a loved one die.
Songs like the excellent “A&W” — named in reference to the phrase “American whore,” not the root beer — and “Fingertips” are two sides of the same life story-telling coin. Each ponder sexual development, an estranged mother and the harrowing reality of carrying trauma deep into adulthood. While “A&W” casts the spotlight on the media and her partners, “Fingertips” has her talking to a mirror, while looking to lean on her beloved father siblings Charlie and Caroline for support. “Will I die or will get to that ten-year mark?/Where I beat extinction of telomeres?/And if I do, will you be there with me? Father, sister, brother?”
There’s an undercurrent of heartbreak beating beneath the surface, especially in the front half. (Del Rey put up one single billboard promoting the album in none other than Tulsa, Oklahoma. Notably, that’s the city where her ex-boyfriend lives). “It’s not about havin’ someone to love me anymore,” she bluntly states on “A&W.” She doesn’t go full scorched earth, instead opting to re-claim her own magic on “Sweet” or celebrating the gift of clarity: “When you know, you know/It’s time, it’s time to go,” she sings on the dazzling, subdued track.
In the midst of of her self-evaluation, Del Rey can’t help but look to her musical past, as well. Songs like the slithering “Candy Necklace” features that her 2012 debut Born to Die and its follow-up Ultraviolence-era coquette delivery that made it clear she was on a musical path unlike any other we were experiencing at the time. 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! gets multiple nods across the project: the title track is interpolated on “A&W,” the opening line of “Cinnamon Girl” opens up “Candy Necklace” and the “VB” in “Taco Truck x VB” stands, of course, for “Venice Bitch,” with its psychedelic freakout closing out the album altogether.
Sonically, Ocean Blvd plays out like an elevated take on what she accomplished on Born to Die: the type of anachronistic fusion of Sixties beat poetry, Seventies FM piano pop and more current rap and dance music production that only Del Rey can pull off. The album is almost strikingly quiet, in comparison to much of her work, leaning largely on the piano for most of the songs. Featured artists Jon Batiste and Riopy offer their extraordinary talents on their respective spots, giving a lounge feel as Del Rey lets her stream of consciousness reflections lead the way.
The masterful, exhilarating “A&W” offers a “Venice Bitch”-style second-half switch-up, pivoting to a sexy rap with a trap beat. The back half moves into surprising territory, thanks to the trap snare and synths of “Fishtail” and an appearance from Tommy Genesis on “Peppers,” which samples Genesis’ track “Angelina.” The latter features some of the most peak Del Rey lines: “Me and my boyfriend listen to the Chili Peppers” before later sneaking in “My boyfriend tested positive for Covid/It don’t matter/We’ve been kissin’/So whatever he has, I have/I can’t cry.”
Some of Del Rey’s darkest thoughts seep into the lyrics, but the most radical element of her songwriting on this project is how much hope she lets sneak in. The grief is met with a vision of heaven that sees her reuniting with those lost family members and friends one day. On “Margaret,” she sings about how her friend and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff met his fiancée Margaret Qualley. She flips the resigned clarity of “Paris, Texas” on its head in the chorus: “When you know, you know,” she sings, nodding at the beauty of expecting the unexpected on both sides of that phrases’ meaning. (Oddly, this is the second time in Antonoff’s production career that an artist he is working with is so moved by his love story that they write a whole song about it). The Father John Misty-featuring “Let the Light In” moves like a memory of the carefree, loved up girl she mourns on songs like “Fishtail” and “A&W.” But its brightness might be an open invitation for that girl to come back whenever she’s ready.
With all the NFR! references on the album, the question on many minds already seems to be whether or not this or any work could top that masterpiece in her discography. But that question is futile. What she has done since — including Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Bannisters — have proven to be a remarkable expansion on the artistic vision she laid out on that album, one that puts her in a creative class all her own. In preaching to herself, she has unlocked the type of art her listeners will hold dear for a lifetime.