Available on: Interscope / Polydor Records LP
In the run-up to Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey proclaimed her disinterest in feminism, advocated for “hardcore love,” and wished she was already dead. For some, it was time to fire up Blogger and churn out a think piece; for others, it was just another twist and turn on Lana Del Rey’s Wild Ride.
With Ultraviolence, Lizzy Grant completes her metamorphosis into Lana Del Rey: a pop star ouroboros that forces the listener to question the artifice inherent in pop culture. While Born To Die laid out the template for the Lana Del Rey persona, Ultraviolence addresses it head-on, acknowledging, confronting and toying with the audience’s expectations across an LP that feels more like an album than a collection of songs (it surpasses its predecessor in this regard).
Lyrically, Del Rey sticks to the same signs and signifiers of Americana: bourbon and coke, red dresses and high heels, guns and Bibles. Occasionally, she finds poetry, crooning “Blue hydrangea, cold cash divine / Cashmere, cologne and white sunshine / Red racing cars, Sunset and Vine” on ‘Old Money’. Mostly, though, she writes with the awkwardness of a pre-teen in her mother’s makeup. The title track is particularly egregious, with its clumsy exposition (“He used to call me DN / That stood for Deadly Nightshade / Cause I was filled with poison / But blessed with beauty and rage”) and awkward rhyming (“violence” with “violins”). Yet the childlike simplicity of her lyrics leaves them no less poignant; she hits nerves and hearts and guts without breaking a sweat.
While her icons and idols are less ubiquitous this time, Del Rey’s references — both lyrical and musical — pay homage to other influences. Swaggering centerpiece ‘West Coast’ apes Stevie Nicks’ ‘Edge of Seventeen’; ‘Sad Girl’ nods to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me; ‘Pretty When You Cry’ is a dirge built upon a guitar melody reminiscent of Cali rock standards ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Under the Bridge’. Reaching even further back, ‘The Other Woman’ was written in 1959 by trailblazer Jessie Mae Robinson and popularized by Nina Simone, and — in the album’s most controversy-courting moment — ‘Ultraviolence’ borrows “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” from The Crystals, a song written by Carole King and produced by Phil Spector that is still shocking 50 years later.
As a songwriter, Del Rey’s Badalamenti-does-Disney compositions are still masterfully crafted, with an instant-vintage quality that looks back on decades-old folks, blues, and rock traditions. Musically, the hip-hop influences have been replaced with cues from the ‘60s and ‘70s, while well-placed orchestral flourishes punch up comparatively stripped back productions. Her breathy warble is a bit more focused this time around, but she still sounds like she’s a lounge singer at The Slow Club or The Roadhouse, bathing her melisma in delay, dragging out syllables until they’re unrecognizable, or turning phrases on their ears (such as how she breaks up the hook on ‘Sad Girl’).
The sequencing on Ultraviolence improves upon that of Born To Die. ‘Cruel World’ is an ambitious but effective opener, a hulking desert rock ballad that sets the album’s tone. As the album continues, the story gets richer and Del Rey gets more daring with her satire, first of Brooklyn hipsters (‘Brooklyn Baby’) then later of her self with the double-whammy of ‘Money, Power, Glory’ and ‘Fucked My Way To The Top’: a pair of songs that own the accusations of her detractors and wear them like badges of honor.
Taken together, the 11 non-bonus tracks cohere around a narrative about an impressionable young woman who comes under the influence of an older man whom she struggles to love and be loved by. The relationship is marked by dominance (his), weakness (hers), abuse (his), hopelessness (hers) — yet she’s the protagonist, still standing at the end, no matter how bruised and battered: “Yeah my boyfriend’s pretty cool / But he’s not as cool as me.” It may leave some listeners aghast, but it’s a classic Hollywood tale, the kind of low-lit fantasy Del Rey has trafficked in the entire time.
With Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey remains a singular figure in music, sounding (and addressing the idea of authenticity) like no one else. In FACT’s review of Born To Die, Tom Lea described Del Rey as “the most theorised pop singer to emerge since Lady Gaga – in fact, by the time this album’s done its damage, she may well have surpassed Gaga in that regard.” It was true then and has only became truer as Gaga’s career has flatlined, leaving Del Rey (and Beyoncé) as fodder for arguments about what it is to be a woman, a feminist, a pop star, or a role model. “They judge me like a picture book,” she sings on ‘Brooklyn Baby’, “By the colors, like they forgot to read.” Lana Del Rey has already heard plenty of criticism, but with Ultraviolence, she keeps daring us to judge her.