The Music Moment: Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

4 mins read

Lana Del Rey is, rightfully, known for her intensely personal songwriting. Her newest album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, released on March 25, is her most vulnerable work to date, at times almost too vulnerable, as if you’re reading someone else’s diary. Detailing Del Rey’s personal life, the album contains heavy themes of family, religion, death, love, and society’s perception of her as a woman and an artist.

The album’s opener, “The Grants,” which gets its title from Del Rey’s family name, sets the tone for much of the album. Following an introduction featuring gospel singers and hinting at the album’s prominent religious themes, it moves into a hazy piano ballad as Del Rey serenely asks her partner “So you say you’re a family man but / do you think about heaven / do you think about me”, introducing the themes of family and Del Rey’s own desire for love. 

The second and titular track finds Del Rey reflecting on her own desire to be loved and remembered, comparing herself to a long-forgotten tunnel under Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach as the song escalates to her desperate plea, “Don’t forget me.”

After a series of piano ballads, the album shifts musically with the fourth track, standout single “A&W”. The track’s title is not a reference to the soda brand but rather an abbreviation of “American Whore,” a title Del Rey uses to refer to herself as she delivers lyrics that examine her own sexualization and objectification in murmured vocals, accusatorily asking “If I told you that I was raped do you really think anybody would think I didn’t ask for it.” The song’s growing tension breaks in the second half, acoustic instrumentation giving  way to a trap beat that Del Rey raps brash, repetitive lyrics over. This drastic shift conveys an unfortunate reality that it can be easier to play into one’s sexualization than fighting it. It also bridges the gap between the album’s two primary musical styles, the soft piano-heavy acoustic first half reflecting her most recent three albums, while the trap-heavy second half harkens back to earlier work such as 2012’s Born to Die. 

The fifth track, “Judah Smith Interlude,” features a lengthy sermon from controversial megachurch pastor Judah Smith seemingly recorded by Del Rey during mass, set over a trilling piano. While Smith’s shouted rant about love and lust feels initially baffling, Del Rey’s intention becomes apparent with Smith’s final lines: “I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me.” Set in the context of such a personal album, the statement conveys Del Rey’s desire to create music for her own sake rather than an audience’s appeasement.

Del Rey returns to slow-paced, piano-dominated ballads with “Candy Necklace,” then another interlude, both featuring John Batiste and consisting of little substance or interest. However, with “Kintsugi” and “Fingertips,” Del Rey demonstrates her remarkable lyrical talent as she explores personal tragedies of her past in vocals that feel more like whispered poetry than singing, underlaid by soft piano and wandering strings. On “Fingertips,” Del Rey recounts the suicide of an uncle, her own attempt at age 15, the death of a friend, her fraught relationship with her mother, and uncertainty over her and her family’s futures. “Kintsugi”, named after the Japanese art of patching up broken pottery, demonstrates that despite the intense personal tragedy Del Rey explores, there’s still hope in her sorrow. Here, Del Rey’s exploration of her difficult past with strikingly sorrowful lyrics such as  “When you see someone dying you see all your days flash in front of you” concludes not in despair but in hope and belief in herself. Even as Del Rey recounts familial deaths, she repeats  “that’s how the light gets in” throughout the track as though it’s a promise she’s reminding herself of.

This hopeful undertone becomes more apparent as she moves into the ridiculously titled “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” a high point of the album. Here, Del Rey’s lyrics shine more than ever, the song half prayer as she calls on both God and her deceased grandfather to guide her and half insistent refutation against misperceptions that controversies throughout her career have generated. 

The album finds its stride near its end as Del Rey continues on to “Let the Light In,” featuring grammy-winning artist Father John Misty. The artists’ voices complement each other stunningly in a melancholy-tinged love song centered firmly in the place of hopefulness and love the album has found. This continues with “Margaret,” featuring Bleachers, fronted by Del Rey’s longtime producer Jack Antonoff. Although I’m perhaps biased given that I share the track’s name (written and named for Antonoff’s fiancee) the love song is another highlight.

There’s an abrupt shift in the last three tracks of the album from its soft acoustic instrumentals to a more trap-adjacent sound that harkens back to Del Rey’s earlier work, beginning with the autotune-infused “Fishtail.” “Peppers” features rapper Tommy Genesis, Del Rey delivering humorously provocative lines such as “My boyfriend tested positive for Covid / it don’t matter, we’ve been kissing” over vocals assuming an indifferent tone that continues into the final track, “Taco Truck x VB.” The song, like “A&W,” is two tracks merged into one, and around the halfway mark shifts into an interpolation of Del Rey’s 2019 track, “Venice Bitch.” It’s one of many allusions Del Rey makes to her critically acclaimed 2019 album Norman F***ing Rockwell! in this latest album, but the album’s ending here feels somewhat dissatisfying. The last three tracks of the album, while a nice change of pace, feel as if the album had a sudden identity crisis, losing its previous cohesiveness. Tightly woven themes unravel, giving way to a fun but anti-climatic carelessness, Del Rey flippantly echoing phrases such as “Get high, drop acid, never die” on the final track. 

Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd features Del Rey’s most personal and poetic songwriting to date. My biggest issue with the album is its length: at a 77-minute run time, it is Del Rey’s longest album, and could have benefited from being cut down. Some of the piano ballads feel dragging and repetitive, and while the album’s sudden diversion at the end was a nice change of pace, it felt odd considering the album as a whole. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is nonetheless a testament to Del Rey’s skill as a writer and artist, dodging easy categorization and creating her music on her own terms—not for the sake of the audience but for herself.

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