Lana Del Rey’s ninth studio album “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard” is exactly what a Lana Del Rey album is supposed to be: thought-provoking, mind-meltingly beautiful, and life-saving. To listen to “Peppers,” “Margaret,” or “Let the Light In” is to fall under an unusual spell, one that makes a melancholy for the very recent past feel both pleasant and painful. It’s a monumental work of art, and quite frankly, as a fan I expected nothing less from the great American poet that is LDR.
There’s just one problem. And unfortunately, it’s a pretty big problem. Track 5, titled “Judah Smith” interlude, features Lana herself and a friend listening to (and giggling in disbelief at) megachurch pastor Smith, whose family-founded Churchome holds anti-gay and anti-abortion views.
So why did Lana include it? Well, there are a few theories floating around.
Theory #1: Lana is 100% Serious
This is by far the worst, most damning theory, so let’s get it the f*ck out the way so I can get back to listening to DYNTTATUOB. The inclusion of part of Smith’s sermon has been taken by some to mean that Lana is politically aligned with Smith and his Church, and that the interlude is some kind of tacit endorsement of Churchome’s homophobic, sexist, and likely transphobic belief system. Obviously we know that when it comes to personal beliefs, Lana is prone to going full white woman on a dime, so it’s not out of the question. Then again—when has anything Lana Del Rey put on an album been that clear and uncomplicated by context? To assume that Del Rey is full-throatedly vouching support for Smith is to ignore the context around it—the giggling, the shitposting comments, the positioning of the song on the album itself, as noted by Daily Beast critic Coleman Spilde. When it comes to the Lana Del Canon, things are never exactly what they seem on the surface. She wouldn’t be one of our greatest poets otherwise.
Theory #2: Lana is Trolling
This is probably the most likely explanation, because we know Lana loves to troll. She’s the queen of saying absurdly campy things with a straight face—which might, impart, explain why gay people love her and would die for her. You tell me who else could sing “In the land of gods and monsters I was an angel looking to get f*cked hard” or “God’s a charlatan, don’t look back, babe.” Now do these sound like the words of someone capable of total, uncritical involvement in any religion? Personally, I don’t buy it. If the Judah Smith sermon had remained on the album without those giggles and audible eyerolls serving as Lana’s personal critique, the filter through which she lets us see her world, then we’d have something to bitch about. But currently? She’s just given us too much for me to believe she’s gunning for our extinction.
Theory #3: “From a Basement on a Hill” Syndrome
This is my personal theory: Lana’s latest album is using a very specific blueprint, whether she’s conscious of (and I’m assuming she is) or not. When you listen to DYKTTATUOB in order (as I have about 85 times over the weekend) you start to realize that stylistically, the album seems to be referencing Elliott Smith’s final finished work, 2004’s “From a Basement on a Hill.” Del Rey isn’t too often compared to Smith, which I find bizarre because the points at which they dovetail are many: romantic suicidal ideation, a love/hate/love relationship with LA, lyrics pulled from a deep store of memorized quotes from midcentury American fiction as well as self-referential lyrics and musical refrains that repeat endlessly.
When you listen to “From a Basement” in its entirety, what you’re struck by is just how many sounds you’re forced to encounter from beginning to end. It’s not just the weird honky-tonk piano shit from “Figure 8” either: we get an entire track called “Ostrich and Chirping” which is exactly what it sounds like. And at the end of “Coast to Coast,” we’re treated to a spoken word segment similar to the Judah Smith interlude: words fall quickly from the mouth of Gary Nelson, an uncredited poet who puts forth his theory of the universe like a preacher. Are we supposed to take what he’s saying seriously? No—we can barely hear the guy. Are we supposed to let the words—regardless of their meaning—cascade over us like a shower of aural pins and needles? To my thinking, yes.
“Originally, the song was called “Circuit Rider,” Nelson explains. “A circuit rider is a preacher who goes from coast to coast, spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Elliott had read more of my journalism than poetry, but he had read some of it and appreciated it. He told me that for several albums he had wanted poetry…to be part of one of his songs, but he had not found someone living whose work he liked enough until me.”
Now Smith wasn’t a religious man: he was someone who studied religion and often sneered at its hypocrisy. To him, creating a song about a “circuit rider” wasn’t a way to spread the word of the good lord Jesus. It was a comment on America. And what does Lana Del Rey do—flawlessly, I might add—if not provide pitch-perfect criticism of the American dream wrapped in that dream’s selfsame gauze?
Nelson talks about meeting Elliott Smith around the time that “From a Basement on a Hill” was coming together and helping to “put together the pieces of the torment he carried with him in his jigsaw puzzle of a heart in order to transmute it into peaceful wholeness.”
I think the same can be applied to Lana Del Rey: musicians are not literal creatures. When they speak to us, they use the tools of poetry. We can only get at its meaning sideways, and the best artists know this and use it to their advantage, just as Lana has done. Elliott Smith wanted to “Coast to Coast” to end in “a waterfall of words”, something that could describe the album as a whole.
So forgive me for not rushing to judgment here: to my mind, an artist as brilliant as Del Rey is simply too intelligent to include a Judah Smith interlude without thinking deeply about what it might mean to us. She’s chosen to keep it there despite the controversy. So I’ll choose to keep listening.
I’ll leave you with what is possibly the best tweet ever tweeted on the subject: