Lana Del Rey Talks Back to the Songbook

I love these lyrics from the title track of Lana Del Rey’s sprawling ninth album, “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd,” which comes out today:

Harry Nilsson has a song, his voice breaks at 2:05
Something about the way he says “Don’t forget me”
Makes me feel like
I just wish I had a friend like him
Someone to get me by

Del Rey’s music is both vividly intimate and highly referential. She writes like a devoted but conversational fan of music history — talking back to the modern songbook and to many of her favorite artists, guided by popular song to her own personal epiphanies.

Del Rey’s old-soul reverence collapses the distance between generations, too. People listening to Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” when it first came out — on “Pussy Cats” from 1974, the notorious chronicle of his “Lost Weekend” with John Lennon — were just as likely to be moved by that wrenching part when his voice breaks, but they probably wouldn’t have known its precise time stamp. Del Rey’s homage speaks the language of digital-era listening (“his voice breaks at 2:05”), but her emotional connection to Nilsson is so deeply felt, it seems to transcend time and turn him into a peer.

Elsewhere on the album, the much-covered, centuries-old folk standard “Froggy Went a Courtin’” makes Del Rey feel connected to her ancestors when she hears it at a funeral. Leonard Cohen’s famous lyric “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” echoes throughout “Ocean Blvd” like a cherished mantra. On “The Grants,” the album’s stirring, gospel-tinged opening number, she interprets the words of a pastor by likening them not to, say, a particular Bible verse, but to “‘Rocky Mountain High,’ the way John Denver sings.”

“Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd” is as rich, challenging and singular as anything Del Rey has released yet, and given that its run time is a daunting hour and 17 minutes, it’s going to require a little time to sink in. Today’s playlist puts some of its best songs in conversation with the other artists it references or, in the case of Father John Misty, features. May it serve as an entry point, or maybe just as a means to tunnel deeper into Lana Del Rey’s slow, subterranean sound.

Maybe Del Rey would even say that these are some of the songs that explain her. Which reminds me: I’m still reading through your (many) great submissions from earlier this week, and I look forward to sharing some with you in Tuesday’s Amplifier.

That’s how the light gets in,


Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“Lana Del Rey Talks Back to the Songbook” track list
Track 1: John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High” (1972)
Track 2: Lana Del Rey, “The Grants” (2023)
Track 3: Tex Ritter, “Froggy Went a Courtin’” (1945)
Track 4: Father John Misty, “Goodbye Mr. Blue” (2022)
Track 5: Lana Del Rey featuring Father John Misty, “Let the Light In” (2023)
Track 6: Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” (1992)
Track 7: Lana Del Rey, “Kintsugi” (2023)
Track 8: Harry Nilsson, “Don’t Forget Me” (1974)
Track 9: Lana Del Rey, “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd” (2023)

Lana isn’t the only artist to appreciate the broken beauty of Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” of course. Here are two cover versions I love: Neko Case’s spirited rendition, from her great 2009 album “Middle Cyclone,” and a faithful take from the Walkmen, on which the frontman Hamilton Leithauser sounds so much like Nilsson that it’s a little bit spooky.

Also, if you’re looking for some newer music: On Fridays, our chief pop music critic, Jon Pareles, and I select some of the week’s most notable new songs for the Playlist, which you can listen to here.

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