On Blue Banisters  Lana Del Rey Faintly Whispers Words of Wisdom

We know that relationships dictate our life’s outcome. However, what isn’t obvious is the way relationships exist not only between people, but also within and beyond them. Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey fortunately knows this well, though now more than ever she understands their utility. On Lana Del Rey’s second 2021 album, Blue Banisters, she proves that intrapersonal, environmental, and especially interpersonal relationships all teach valuable lessons promoting future wellness.

The convoluted, allegorical, and masterfully crafted “Text Book” opens Blue Banisters, highlighting the album’s most limited subject matter in which the singer assesses her country’s political and social climate. It’s unlike many of the other songs that obviously portray person-to-place relationship, and so requires rigorous fact-checking.

Take the lines “I guess you could call it textbook/I was lookin’ for the father I wanted back.” The second line implies the singer lost her father, which when fact-checked isn’t true; the singer only documents through her lyrics her rocky mother-daughter relationship. Appearing later, the excerpt “father never stepped in/when his wife would rage at me” shows this. In contrast, she praises her father, even publicly sharing positive father-daughter moments. The opening lyric’s “father” then becomes a symbol representing support and stability, both of which she nearly lost due to public controversies. It’s no wonder she wants it back. The song’s subsequent line, “and I thought I found it in Brentwood,” specifically uses “it” not “him” or “you,” further solidifying the idea that “it” represents stability and support. Give it some thought; for a loved father, who is a person, “it” is much too harsh a dehumanizing pronoun. The verse’s last line, “it seemed only appropriate you’d easily have my back,” addresses fans who during her controversies didn’t take her side and so failed to provide needed support and stability.

Using similar deconstructive methods when approaching other lyrics, this song does truly address person-to-place relationships. The entire following verse establishes the narrative in which Lana Del Rey “rediscovers” America’s wonders after her biological mother counteracted them.

The lines “and then there was the issue of her/I didn’t even like myself or love the life I had” display the singer’s past misery, letting the first line’s “her” represent a mother: her previous life’s downfall. This isn’t the first time, career-wise, when the singer indirectly addresses her mother. In fact, the previous verse’s “father” mainly invites a mother to the listener’s mind, allowing the singer’s indirect addressment’s functionality. Using her technique, we, the listener, make the connection. Lastly, for context we must know the singer attended a boarding school, remedying budding alcoholism. After leaving the institution, she lived with her aunt and uncle where she then—having left her mother—saw America’s wonders. This sparked her career, and the rest is history. With this knowledge, see the lines “and there you were with shinin’ stars/standin’ blue with open arms” as clearly referencing the American flag. This depicts the moment the singer first felt her country’s perks. This appreciation crumbles later when she’s “screamin’ ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the crowd.” The transition from America-lover to appalled protestor shows her patriot-to-protestor progression, which is ultimately her response to environmental changes.

Opening with the album’s most complex song, lyrically and musically, helps make smooth sailing of the ones that follow. Illustrating the same person-to-place relationship, “Arcadia” only shows her political progression’s aftermath. In the track, the singer imagines pursuing Arcadia,—a Greek mythical utopia where all uncorrupted spirits reside—letting “but you’ll need a miracle/America” be her departing message. Other Americans no doubt share her escapist desires.

The album's best and shamefully under-explored subject matter examines intrapersonal turmoil. In track sequence, “Black Bathing Suit” recognizes her past year’s COVID-19 isolation period controversies, which includes a public conversation on May 19th, 2020, where she defended her music’s abusive love topics. As support, she called out other singers glamorizing overly sexual and infidelious topics. Lyrically acknowledging this controversy, she claims “your interest really made stacks out of it for me,” implying her controversy-sparked fan growth brought great financial wealth. Tragically, the fantastic “Dealer” proves financial wealth doesn’t ensure mental wellness. As the title suggests, the track tackles drug acquisition and abuse. In the masterpiece, English performer Miles Kane sings the key lyric “please don’t try to find me through my dealer.” Lana Del Rey’s entrance—which is hardly subtle—follows; she repeats “gave you all my money” until she bluntly wails “I don’t wanna live.” Her broken, raw delivery prompts, like clockwork, tears. Lastly, “Wildflower Wildfire” discusses romantic strengths and difficulties after the singer’s “father never stepped in/when his wife would rage at me/so I ended up awkward but sweet.” All tracks confronting intrapersonal trauma find the singer openly acknowledging, no matter how horrifying, her situation’s truths.

Del Ray’s concluding songs, which make up the bulk of the album, are about interpersonal relationships. They build upon the aforementioned truths and examine her reactions to her heightened awareness. The many awkward romantic tales this album contains make clear that these difficult relationships both stain the singer’s past and will affect her future, both personally and musically.

Blue Banisters’ unadventurous interpersonal relationship songs musically sabotage an otherwise excellent album. The title track, “Beautiful,” and “Violets for Roses” all scold lovers’ controlling behaviors that threaten her mannerisms, emotions, and values, respectively. “If You Lie Down With Me,” “Thunder,” “Living Legend,” “Cherry Blossom,” and “Sweet Carolina” dance around seeing things truly and acting accordingly. Manifesting themselves as minor topics throughout these pieces are: romantic offers, declinations, grateful expressions, and supporting role adoptions. Nevertheless, each minor topic supports the larger, teachable theme that constructive reactions first require humiliating reflections.

“Nectar of The Gods”, through its lyrics, encompasses all the album’s relationships. The line “I get wild on you, baby” shows interpersonal relationships. “What cruel world is this?” asks a question many now more than ever ask, which develops environmental (as in, one’s surroundings) relationships. “I used to sing about people like you, now I just get high” explores intrapersonal troubles. Beyond the album’s topics comes the singer’s personal message: “once I found my way but now I am lost.”

It seems obvious and true that one who’s lost cannot muster a proper thematic album; that's where musicality—or a lack thereof—makes an entrance. Simply put, predictable chord progressions, repetitive rhythms, and noticeably poor vocal performances curse Blue Banisters, making it sound more demo-like than is acceptable. At numerous points the singer slips out of tune. Whether or not it’s intentional isn’t clear. Since neither the music nor the lyrics justify these poor vocal moments, the recording seems rushed and the final product lackluster. Though thee are exceptions, most songs feature a piano’s especially simple chords underneath the melody, which form and repeat predictable progressions. Consequently, the album feels drawn-on. Placing such chord strikes at either each measure’s first beat, or, possibly worse, every single beat (quarter notes), makes differences between songs hazy; memorable tracks, for example “Dealer,” escape this formula while others become mediocre blurs.

Though Lana Del Rey never exemplified musical innovation, it seems previous producer Jack Antonoff—(Chemtrails Over The Country Club and Norman Fucking Rockwell!)—may have polished the singer’s music more than many listeners thought. Though, across producers some things never change; mellow piano playing, minimal percussion, and the occasional feature instrument, whether horns, an electric guitar, or an organ, continue to drive the music.

The dreadful, trap-influenced “Interlude - The Trio,” which appallingly modernizes Ennio Morricone’s original The Good, the Bad and the Ugly score is among the album’s most unoriginal songs. Placed within the album’s peaks and valleys, “Interlude-The Trio” sits at the bottom of a coal mine. In fact, a coal lump has stronger musical appeal, though, like the other songs on this record—and as is true with most of Lana Del Rey’s recordings— it scales a sonic peak.

Lana Del Rey’s recordings always deliver the sonic goods. Each track invites to the soundstage’s center a well-developed vocal image. The singer’s voice never appears sibilant or overly muffled. It’s purely there. Pianos sound a touch soft, though never distractedly so. All throughout the soundstage, across the album, various percussive instruments engage the listener’s ears.

However, this is only true digitally. Pressed to plastic, dynamic peaks, which this recording thankfully has, distort and bite the poor listener’s ears. As the tracks approach the disc’s center, it worsens until it’s unbearable. The recording remains spacious, and when volume levels stay low it’s quite pleasant, but those are few and far between moments. Somewhere in the production chain something went seriously wrong. The very talented Adam Ayan mastered at Bob Ludwig’s Gateway Mastering and Pallas pressed in Germany, but there’s no lacquer cutting credit so perhaps that’s where the problems occurred or I just got a bad pressing. If at all, seek a coloured variant that supposedly boasts superior pressing quality—at least that’s what the Discogs inmates claim.

Despite lyrical wit, across the board poor vocal performances and repetitive songwriting plague Blue Banisters. Most compelling are the album’s intrapersonal, environmental, and well-established interpersonal relationships, all of which support the idea that we must view our relationships through an honest lens and then act accordingly. Consequently, one’s life will surely improve. This is Lana Del Rey’s very valuable wisdom, though humdrum musical choices will bore listeners and limit accessibility.

Die-hard fans and in-depth reviewers alike will see her theme while casual listeners go mostly unrewarded. Thus, Blue Banisters is a half-baked album; its lyrics treat devoted listeners yet without musical scaffolding the album’s wise teachings risk invisibility. Beautiful ideas or not, without engaging musical structures Blue Banisters unveils Lana Del Rey barely whispering.

(Nathan Zeller is a Beatles fanatic and passionate audiophile found in Western Canada. Currently, he’s drooling over an upcoming loudspeaker upgrade.)

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Jazz listener's picture

and did not experience the same “unbearable” sonics this reviewer apparently did. My copy sounded very good from start to finish sonically. I find the 5 rating rather harsh. I would rate it a solid 7. I would however rate the review itself about a 5, some really bad, grimace-inducing writing throughout, and too long by half. Was this review rushed for some reason?

Nathan Zeller's picture

I'm very glad you like this album; let it be another record in your collection that you enjoy. It's a great day when you find another one of those, that's for sure. I simply didn't have an experience identical to yours. My writing, which you hurtfully (hurtful as your criticism stands with no evidence or suggestions) call "bad" and "grimace-inducing" reflects my personal thoughts. It also reflects my true experience with the pressing I received. It's great that your copy sounds good. Unfortunately, I can't say the same. I did note that my copy may be a dud in my review. Nevertheless, it's my job to share these experiences as a way of informing readers. Someone may enjoy this album as you do only to receive a shrill copy like mine. I only give a fair warning.

This review wasn't rushed. It just doesn't line up with your beliefs, and let me say that's okay; we'll inevitably have differing opinions on many matters. I only ask that you respect my thoughts as I continue to respect yours.

Wymax's picture

You experienced sonic faults towards the end of each record side, even distortion all across, but still rate the sound as "9"?

Nathan Zeller's picture

I rated the sound a 9 because I recognize the recording itself isn’t distorted. The recording itself is great, something just went terribly wrong with my copy. To base the review’s sound rating only on my copy would be a limited and ignorant perspective.

Wymax's picture

I recently bought a vinyl edition of an older Alan Parsons album, a reissue from 2015. From beginning to end it ticked and popped. When I fork out decent money for a vinyl album and it is seriously affected by pressing errors, I will call it out. Yes I could return it, but I have to pay for it to be sent back (approx. 30% of the album price). In my opinion, when they sell something like this, I call it out in my review (just on the sellers website). My copy probably isn't the only one affected, so I try to warn others, but you did do that in your review. I didn't read it that thoroughly, I wasn't aware that to had listened to both the CD and the vinyl edition.

PeterPani's picture

Even saw her in Ireland before the big shutdown. This is a wonderful record. I would give 9 for the music and 7,5 for the sound.

Steelhead's picture

I bought this on compact disc and it is sonically fine although I am more interested in her lyrics than the actual band behind her. When listening more focused on her words.

I don't think it is even close to NFR which I consider her masterpiece.

She is definitely a rock star and one of the few "new" artists that I usually just buy without listening as I enjoy her work.

I love Lana and want to marry her but I am too afraid of her.

On an endnote, I really enjoy your reviews and for a youngster I am impressed with your writing.

PeterPani's picture

No words on earth can better summarize the fascination of her voice and singing!!!!
This sentence of yours gets a rating of 11/11!

Jazz listener's picture

she would chew all of us up and spit us out. Would be a fun ride though!

Nathan Zeller's picture

I appreciate your comment on my writing a whole lot. I definitely agree Lana Del Rey's lyrics are her main attraction. I absolutely loved Chemtrails Over The Country Club and Norman Fucking Rockwell! is great too. I found Blue Banisters at least matched the lyrical skill of those albums, but doesn't compare musically at all to them.

If you consider Norman Fucking Rockwell! to be her masterpiece, you should keep an eye out for a QRP-pressed version of that album. They're out there! I think they were a green pressing. Either way, QRP pressings are far superior to her usual MPO pressings. I really hope she represses Chemtrails Over The Country Club at QRP. I've gone through four copies of that album and not one has been "clean."

Steelhead's picture

Thanks for the heads up youngster.

I will definitely seek out the QRP pressing of NFR as that would be in the frequent spin pile for quite awhile.

I listen to vinyl the vast majority of the time but with Lana I bought ultraviolence on cd and then just started building her discography on cd as when she releases I just go to Amazon and buy it immediately. Love them all but NFR just hit me right between the eyes.

Keep up your insightful reviews (kind of impressed as you're a youngster and normally I would glide right on by) and keep spinning the best band ever. you know the ones named after insects.


Burphy's picture

I'm very happy that I listened to the Chemtrails first and this album later. Although I'm over-sensitive when singer slips off the note ... here, after repeated listening, I've come to the conclusion that it's on purpose and it works well for me. My discovery of the 2020 was Thorbjörn Risager and the discovery of 2021 is Lana Del Rey.