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Lana Del Rey's ambitious new album is her riskiest to date


This is FRESH AIR. Lana Del Rey has a new album, and our rock critic Ken Tucker says she's making her most ambitious, riskiest music to date. It's called "Did You Know That There's A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd." It's her ninth collection and her longest, filled with dense compositions about family lore and romantic entanglements. Here's Ken's review.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard? Mosaic ceilings, painted tiles on the wall - I can't help but feel somewhat like my body marred my soul, handmade beauty sealed up by two man-made walls. And I'm like, when's it going to be my turn?

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's from the title song of "Did You Know That There's A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd." As this lengthy album proceeds, the tunnel under California's Ocean Boulevard becomes a metaphor for Lana Del Rey's deep dives into family history, as well as fictional scenarios that can be startling or upsetting. There are frequent moments of stately beauty, as on the song called "The Grants." Del Rey was born Elizabeth Grant.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) So you say there's a chance for us. Should I do a dance for once? You're a family man, but, but do you think about heaven?

TUCKER: Some of the stories Del Rey creates here carry a sting that can be jolting, disturbing. One devastating moment is the song called "A&W." For seven minutes, Del Rey inhabits a woman who's been abused, used up and tossed away, except she's still alive, and now it's her survival she's finding unbearable.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Called up one drunk. Called up another. "Forensic Files" wasn't on. Watching "Teenage Diary Of A Girl," wondering what went wrong. I'm a princess. I'm divisive. Ask me why, why, why I'm like this. Maybe I'm just kind of like this. I don't know, maybe I'm just like this. I say I live in Rosemead. Really, I'm at the Ramada. It doesn't really matter, doesn't really, really matter. Call him up, he comes over again. Yeah, I know I'm in over my head but, oh. It's not about having someone to love me anymore. No, this is the experience of being an American whore.

TUCKER: It turns out the letters A and W stand, not for root beer, but for American whore. And Del Rey knows how ugly that sounds because she sings the phrase over and over until the song does the musical equivalent of passing out. In a creepy coda to this nightmare, her narrator sounds drugged and desperate to escape her memories, burying them beneath nonsense syllables that are like a paraphrase of Little Anthony and the Imperials' 1960 hit "Shimmy Shimmy KO KO Bop."


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Jimmy, Jimmy, cocoa puff, Jimmy, Jimmy ride. Jimmy, Jimmy, cocoa puff, Jimmy, get me high. Love me, if you love enough, you can be my light. Jimmy only love me when he want to get high. Jimmy only love me when he want to get high. Jimmy only love me when he want to get high.

TUCKER: This is mood music, sometimes just Del Rey and a piano, sometimes Del Rey and a lush string section. It's Hollywood melodrama, but it also connects to the real Los Angeles - beautiful but seedy, richly overripe. The music and the lyrics contain allusions to The Mamas & the Papas, Randy Newman, the Eagles, Harry Nilsson. Like a lot of transplanted East Coasters, Del Rey's vision of Los Angeles is at once deeply romantic and deeply skeptical. The songs here about her father, uncle and grandparents remind me of Ross MacDonald's sunbaked detective novels about fractured California clans and the private eye who tries to put the pieces back together. That's what Del Rey is trying to do, too, in songs that are just as hardboiled and vivid.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Pick you up at home, quarter to 3. Ask you if you want something to eat. Drive around, get drunk, do it over again. Wake you up at night, quarter to 1. I can never stop, want to have fun. Don't be acting like I'm the kind of girl who can sleep. 'Cause every time you say you're going to go, I just smile, 'cause, babe, I already know you know I got nothing under this overcoat. Ooh, let the light in.

TUCKER: It didn't surprise me at all to see in a recent interview that Del Rey has been reading Allen Ginsberg. On this new album, she's writing longer, flowing lines that, like many of Ginsberg's poems, seem based on the length of a breath - what Ginsberg called deep breath unobstructedly (ph) - musical.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) When I look back, tracing fingertips over plastic bags, thinking, I wish I could extrapolate some small intention or maybe just get your attention for a minute or two. Will I die? Or will I get to that 10-year mark where I beat the extinction of telomeres? And if I do, will you be there with me, father, sister, brother?

TUCKER: This album has 16 songs, and a few of them may seem too long, too digressive, but who cares? Every one of them contains at least a moment of pure revelation, and many of them yield up a whole series of observations or musical twists that carry you along, transfixed. There's no one else assembling music like this, leaving you constantly unsure of where the next verse might go or even what the next verse might sound like.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. He reviewed Lana Del Rey's new album called "Did You Know That There's A Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, a portrait of the suicidal mind. We talk with Clancy Martin, author of the new book "How Not To Kill Yourself." It's part memoir about his more than 10 attempts to end his life by suicide and his gratitude that he survived. It's also filled with advice about how to live with the thought of suicide without acting on it. The book also reflects his thinking as a professor of philosophy and a student of Tibetan Buddhism. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) This is a simple song, going to write it for a friend. My shirt is inside out. I'm messy with the pen. He met Margaret on a rooftop. She was wearing white. And he was like... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.