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Lana Del Rey makes music out of vague, vivid memories. How will it be remembered?

Lana Del Rey performs in Washington, D.C., in 2018. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)
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We should only play clairvoyance games for fun, but try squinting three decades into the future and see whether anyone still remembers the confusing things Lana Del Rey said in her interviews, or the unforced errors that she posted on her Instagram regarding race and representation, or her decision to date a cop, or how an airplane literally wrote her name in the sky over Los Angeles on Friday afternoon. Then squint your ears. Is it possible to experience her music in your 2051 head today?

It might be good to try, because after seven albums fogged in hype and tsk-tsk, the parsing of her celebrity has done very little to give us a clearer picture of her work. In terms of craft, she says she writes a song “for the song” — not for herself; not for any specific audience, which includes everyone who wants to worship her, excommunicate her, explain her or understand her. So one way to listen to her new album, “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” is to sink all the way into the music and stay there.

The opening piano ballad, “White Dress,” is a multilayered flashback sung with signature calm, as if Del Rey were watching memories come into focus alongside us, placing herself inside and outside the song at once, one of her great and freaky gifts. Our narrator is reminiscing about “a simpler time” when she worked as a teenage waitress, savoring her days off spent “on the lawn” listening to the White Stripes, plotting her big trip to “the Men in Music Business Conference down in Orlando” — an absurdly ravishing line of trainwrecked poetry that Del Rey delivers in a squeaky whisper, as if she were singing a hair metal ballad to an infant at 4 a.m.

It was there, at this imaginary industry conference in Florida where “I felt seen,” Del Rey sings next, transforming Twitter affirmation language into a comment on the male gaze. What’s the comment? Not sure. But at least we know where we are. Ambiguous meanings, precise locations. She’s an expert at that. When the songs twirl your head, you can still find your feet.

From there, the album’s action migrates to a country club swimming pool, to a daydream of Arkansas, to a smoggy Los Angeles, to a Nebraskan purgatory, to a cabin in Yosemite, and finally, to the “dirty town” that Joni Mitchell visited back in 1970 — more specifically, a curtain-closing cover of Mitchell’s “For Free” in which the narrator encounters a street musician whose playing makes the idea of musical fame feel ridiculous. Del Rey has always made a big show out of nodding to her songwriting heroes, but this cover feels like a more significant genuflection in that Mitchell’s greatest lyrics always did more than just tell stories. They conjured places where life was happening.

The weird and wonderful thing about Del Rey’s story-places is that they also contain so much life that hasn’t happened: cloudy memories of unfulfilled desires and dreams that never came true — or if they did, they were the wrong dreams. On “White Dress,” the ex-waitress ultimately wonders if her life would have been better spent taking orders at the restaurant. Over the campfire guitar pluckings of “Yosemite,” the singer imagines an impossible romance in which two lovers never change. The album’s title track begins with a search for God and ends with a prayer for normalcy, “washing my hair, doing the laundry, late night TV.”

Del Rey’s delicate phrasing used to sound torchy and indulgent, but now, as she floats higher into her falsetto, her singing has become meticulous and fine spun, evoking the fragility of people and the memories perpetually evaporating inside their heads. The supporting instruments — pianos, guitars and drums that barely get touched — work to that end, too, consistently erasing your awareness of their presence in real time.

So with their quiet intensity and disintegrating contours, her songs work like memories: What actually happened in our lives never comes back as clear as what it felt like. In 30 years, we might remember this music and the woman who made it the very same way.

Read more by Chris Richards:

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