Now is Lana Del Rey’s age of Peak California, of isolation and empty beaches, of neo-folk guitars and “Coachella—Woodstock in My Mind.” On today’s new “Mariners Apartment Complex,” notably produced with help from pop whisperer Jack Antonoff, she even sings about catching a wave. It’s hard to picture Lana Del Rey surfing, don’t you think? Maybe she loves it, but it feels too unruly, too upbeat for the woman who glided into our collective consciousness on a sky-mounted tire swing. The surfing isn’t, I don’t think, supposed to be any more literal than “Mariners Apartment Complex” is supposed to be a literal building. The first single from her rumored 2019 album is at once a rejoinder to her critics, a statement of purpose, and a way of saying, “Whatever you may think, you don’t really know me.”
That’s not to say that “Mariners” won’t feel instantly familiar to students of Del Rey’s work, particularly last year’s Lust for Life and slow, longing tunes like “13 Beaches” and “White Mustang.” In what one can only imagine is the result of the Antonoff tune-up, the new song’s opening lines recall Anna Nalick’s mid-’00s alt-pop radio hit “Breathe (2 AM)”; by the tail end, it’s faded to the ultra-reverbed guitar of Del Rey’s Ultraviolence days. The lyrics employ her usual callbacks to cultural touchstones, most obviously “Candle in the Wind,” Elton John’s melancholy tribute to poor late Marilyn Monroe, only three years older at the time of her death than Del Rey is now. Couldn’t be me, she sings, because she’s an existential danger to others: The “kinda girl who’s gonna make you wonder / Who you are, and who you been.”
That’s the surface, then, but the rip current comes in half-whispered refrains of “I’m your man” and the shadow of another of Del Rey’s departed icons, Leonard Cohen. His much-celebrated “I’m Your Man” is a lust song that transcends desire: Cohen is a lover, he is a fighter, he is a supplicant, he is anything you want him to be in the moment, and he is that totally. Your man. “You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me,” Del Rey sings, and there it is again: “I’m your man.” She asks your understanding (“They mistook my kindness for weakness”), your forgiveness (“I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus”), your grace (“Can’t a girl just do the best she can?”) and in return, she offers everything: her power as a cypher and her vulnerability as an individual, bottled up tight in the character of Lana Del Rey and cast into the waves.