Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’: A Black And Blue Beauty (Album Review)
[dropcap size=small]”S[/dropcap]hared my body and my mind with you,” Lana Del Rey wistfully coos at the start of Ultraviolence. “That’s all over now.”
Once those psychedelic guitars come reverberating into the speakers, the sonic shift from 2012’s Born To Die to Ultraviolence becomes instantly clear: Lana Del Diet Mountain Dew is gone — this is LDR gone LSD. And as the nearly 7-minute intro hypnotically stretches onward, Lana falls into a kind of wild flower child ecstasy above crashing drums and stormy guitar licks. “Oh…you’re crazy for me!” she moans.
Is she nostalgically reflecting on a lost love? Or is she singing to someone else? Could it be directed toward…us?
It’s been over two years now since Lana debuted with her masterful Born To Die amid wildly over-the-top criticism and endless “authenticity” thinkpieces, which ripped apart everything from her major label affiliation to her back story to her physical appearance.
In the beginning of January of that year, Lana appeared on Saturday Night Live and delivered a perfectly fine, if not shaky debut live TV performance full of delicate twirls and odd hand gestures. Critics mocked her. Darker corners of the Internet tore her to cyber-shreds in a sea of memes. At that time, Born To Die was only two weeks away from release. There would no time to put her feelings to tape — but she felt it all, terribly. The backlash was so severe that Lana considered backing away from the music industry completely.
From Clash Magazine:
“All the time. Every day. I didn’t want to do it, ever. You can make music, just for making music – you don’t have to put it on YouTube. That was definitely a viable option for me. I have a lot of passions and making music was always something I would do for fun. But from what happened, it wasn’t worth it most of the time.”
Since then, she limited herself to the most minimal of interactions on social media, steered clear of mainstream television programming and kept to herself, living within — but never attempting to interact much with — the community that built her and broke her down in record time.
“Shared my body and my life with you. That’s way over now. There’s not more I can do.”
As time went on and the faux outrage died down, somewhere in between the sleeper success of “Summertime Sadness” and the sweeping Great Gatsby theme “Young & Beautiful” last year, the same people screaming “Inauthentic!” changed their tune. She was embraced — adored, even! — as the album went on to sell over 7 million copies. Just last month, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian invited Lana to France just to have her sing at their wedding, which she did.
The storm passed. But now, she’s got something to say.
Ultraviolence is very much a response to all of that: It’s an album filled with a deep rage and a strong sense of sarcasm, at times mocking her imitators and knowingly feeding into her critics; others resigning to a kind of numbness by escaping to the West Coast behind crashing walls of noise and a haze of hydroponic weed.
The sound of Ultraviolence, too, is a major middle finger to her detractors — and perhaps even some of her supporters. As “West Coast” proved back in February, a divinely trippy tribute to the California coast filled with woozy guitars and frequent tempo shifts, Ultraviolence is also not quite as readily accessible as Born To Die.
Although she’s teamed up once again with collaborators like Rick Nowels and Daniel Heath to pen those undeniably classic Lana Del Rey lyrics and melodies, the Emile Haynie-produced hiccuping hip-hop beats and yelps in the distance which colored her 2012 debut (and gifted her with the unwanted nickname of “The Gangsta Nancy Sinatra”) have been hollowed out. Instead, the album’s muted by a lo-fi vintage rock haze — a “fuzz,” according to Lana — by The Black Keys‘ Dan Auerbach.
Since the release of Born To Die, her sole Billboard Top 10 hit was Cedric Gervais‘ surging House remix of “Summertime Sadness.” And Ultraviolence, with all of its chaos and fury — the tempo shifts, instrumental breaks and thoroughly Top 40 radio un-friendly rock textures — feels like a direct reaction to the unwanted club kid attention.
It’s as if to say: “Remix this, you fuckers.”
“A lot of my songs are not just simple verse-chorus pop songs – they’re more psychological.” She talks about tempo, and how she likes to reflect her mental state through a song’s speed: “When I played [the label] West Coast they were really not happy that it slipped into an even slower BPM for the chorus,” she says. “They were like: ‘None of these songs are good for radio and now you’re slowing them down when they should be speeded up.’ But for me, my life was feeling murky, and that sense of disconnectedness from the streets is part of that.”
That’s not to say that the album is all that inaccessible: Ultraviolence is still very much a Lana Del Rey record, full of those melancholy, heaven-sent melodies and recurring motifs that we’ve come to know as oh-so-very Lana Del Rey.
The Greg Kurstin-produced “Money Power Glory,” for instance — which bursts with single potential — sees Lana taking us to the church of the superficial and getting those gold coins in a soaring moment of blasphemy. “You talk lots about God, freedom comes from the call/But that’s not what this bitch wants, not what I want at all,” she dismisses before taking it a step further. “I want money…power…glory!” she chants on high across the gorgeous, hymn-like chorus. “Allelujah…I wanna take you for all that you got!”
Unlike the excess of Born To Die songs like “National Anthem” however, “Money Power Glory” is meant more as sarcasm: “I learned that whatever I did elicited an opposite response, so I’m sure ‘Money, Power, Glory’ will actually resonate with people as being what I really do want. I already know what’s coming, so it’s O.K. to explore irony and bitterness,” she told The New York Times. “I was in more of a sardonic mood…like, if all that I was actually going to be allowed to have by the media was money, loads of money, then fuck it…what I actually wanted was something quiet and simple: a writer’s community and respect,” she continued to explain in The Guardian.
When she’s not sticking it to critics, she’s firing shots at a specific songstress swiping her aesthetic on the all-too-incredibly titled “Fucked My Way Up To The Top.” “It’s about a singer who first sneered about my allegedly not authentic style, but later she stole and copied it. And now she’s acting like I am the art project and she’s the true super artist. My God, and people actually believe her. She’s successful!” she revealed to Grazia.
While the forums are still abuzz with speculation over which singer she’s talking about (Gaga? Lorde?), it’s a delicious dig regardless: “I’m a dragon, you’re a whore/Don’t even know what you’re good for/Mimicking me’s a fucking bore,” she viciously declares on the ominous warning shot. “I fucked my way up to the top — this is my show!” This is her idea of shade.
Rejection is a theme that weaves itself constantly throughout Ultraviolence — whether it be from her bad baby, her critics, or the communities to which she so badly wished to belong in the past.
“I was looking for an artistic community like Dylan’s, Joan Baez’s or Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’s beat generation…in the sixties, where they spent their nights writing novels or folk songs. I also sought respect as a writer within that community. And, truthfully, I found neither,” she told XL Semanal.
And so, she’s created this world of her own, swaying to the sound of her boyfriend’s band with feathers in her hair while singing Lou Reed who, morbidly died the day Lana was expected to work with him on “Brooklyn Baby.” (That would happen to Lana, wouldn’t it?) Instead, her real-life boyfriend Barrie-James O’Neill assists at the song’s end; his deep voice providing a gruff compliment to Lana’s sweet voice. “I get down to beat poetry/And my jazz collection’s rare,” she coos, finding solace in pop culture icons and Americana as she’s done time and time again.
“If you don’t get it then forget it, ’cause I don’t have to fucking explain it,” she blissfully sings on “Brooklyn Baby,” effectively flipping off the past two years in a single sentence.
But “Brooklyn Baby” is really only one of the few times she seems to be at peace on the fiery LP.
She’s at her best when she’s at her most lonesome: “Old Money,” a majestic tune that comes floating in like a ghost from the Born To Die era, sees her waxing nostalgic across soaring strings and a solemn piano melody that borrows from “What Is The Youth?” from 1968’s Romeo & Juliet. “Will you still love me when I shine from words, but not from beauty?” she wonders, referencing her Great Gatsby theme. “My father’s love was always strong/My mother’s glamour lives on and on/Yet still inside, I felt alone for reasons unknown to me,” she chillingly recalls. The loner we met on the road of “Ride” is still alive and well.
As always, Lana remains fiercely loyal to her man — despite his mood swings: “I can’t fix it, can’t make him better/And I can’t do nothing about his strange weather,” she laments on “Shades Of Cool.” “But you are unfixable,” she flutters, “I can’t break through your world/’Cause you’re living shades of cool/Your heart is unbreakable.” The last few minutes are especially heavenly, as Lana’s voice is drowned out by a cacophony of jam session-style drums and guitars.
Nothing will stop her from lusting for her man: “I’m a sad girl, I’m a bad girl,” Lana repeats over and over again across the jazzy, slow-swaggering “Sad Girl,” a sultry self-justification anthem for the girl on the side, in the style of “Million Dollar Man.”
After all this time, she’s still the same dejected girl waiting all alone on a Friday night. “All those little times you said that I’m your girl, you make me feel like your whole world,” she quivers above a solemn guitar strum on “Pretty When You Cry,” her voice nearly breaking as in “Yayo.” In a way, it’s a continuation of “Blue Jeans” too, as Lana longs for the gangster that left her waiting. “You don’t come through babe, you never do babe/That’s just what you do ’cause I’m pretty when I cry,” she sighs. Her pain is his pleasure.
“Ultraviolence” is not only the record’s centerpiece, but the song most likely to draw attention from listeners (apart from the eyebrow raise of “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” of course). Lana sings sweetly of a man named Jim, the one who raised her up and struck her with love — or maybe something more physical. “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” she dizzily coos, referencing The Crystals‘ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” He’s her cult leader, and the song’s hypnotic chorus (“This ultraviolence…“) plays like the trance she’s been put under.
On the one hand, it could be considered a romanticization of physical abuse. Or is it simply an exploration of Lana’s own fetish? “For me, a true feminist is someone who is a woman who does exactly what she wants. If my choice is to, I don’t know, be with a lot of men, or if I enjoy a really physical relationship, I don’t think that’s necessarily being anti-feminist,” she told The New York Times.
Lana’s matured as a woman, too: The faint, flirty perfume of coquettish cuts like “Lolita” and “This Is What Makes Us Girls” has faded. She’s now embracing the woman she’s become — no matter how questionable in character she may be — as with the album’s chilling closer, a cover of Nina Simone‘s rendition of “The Other Woman.” Her voice comes through like a faded 1950’s radio broadcast, and there’s an undeniably otherworldly twist too — like the Lady In The Radiator singing “In Heaven” during David Lynch‘s Eraserhead.
This is Lana’s own dark, twisted fantasy: The beautiful singer crooning in a smoke-filled jazz club, sadly recounting the fate of the mistress who always winds up alone as the curtain falls.
Born To Die might have had its somber moments, but it often bursted with life — swimming pool ripples, bikini tops, glittering diamonds and red, white and blue fireworks in the sky. Ultraviolence is much darker and stormier. The sound is fuzzy and distorted. The songs are heavier and more structurally complex. The sad girl is even sadder. And while the album may not contain quite as much of the singalong-friendly “suh-suh-summertime sadness” appeal of Born To Die, Ultraviolence is still a deeply immersive experience, filled with seduction, bibles and beat poetry.
But, as if to begin anew, the album’s deluxe tracks of Ultraviolence (mostly) offer a light at the end of the tunnel: The tropical-infused “Florida Kilos” is a fleeting moment of escapist, drug-filled, Cherry Cola-flavored fun in the Miami sun, and one of the album’s only real uptempo moments.
And “Black Beauty” — an unbelievably gorgeous Paul Epworth-produced track which leaked nearly a year before the album’s release — has been given new life with some added punch and rockier grit, making it one of Lana’s greatest epics since “Ride.” It’s an instant classic through and through, as Lana laments a lover who just can’t seem to break through his shades of cool. “Oh, what can I do? Life is beautiful, but you don’t have a clue,” she pleads above the ethereal chorus. “Darling, you can’t let everything seem so dark blue.”
This, of course, after sobbing a bulk of the record away with songs like ‘Sad Girl’ and ‘Pretty When You Cry.’ Hey — at least she’s got a good sense of humor.
There’s a “Parental Advisory” sticker on the front of Ultraviolence, to the left of the Neil Krug-shot photograph of the singer stepping out of a car in a see-through white V-neck tee.
There was a sticker on Born To Die, too – but this time, the warning feels even more appropriate. Not because of the language, but rather, the messages: Ultraviolence is a dark and depressing ride, with tales just begging to be deemed “problematic” by oversensitive bloggers: Codependence. Adultery. Alcoholism. Drugs. Physical and emotional abuse. She plays the mistress, the seductress, the lost girl and the antiheroine with a heroin-loving bad baby.
But Lana Del Rey is not meant to be a moral compass, nor does she pretend to be: She’s a storyteller, one of the most uncompromisingly unique, evocative songwriters we’ve got in popular music today, and what she sings about is drawn from her own personal experiences…good, bad or otherwise.
In other words, this ain’t your “Born This Way” brand of #ItGetsBetter pop — and thank God for that.
Lana Del Rey is not a pop star, but somehow, she is. As inspired by a recent conversation on Twitter, the degree to which the term “pop star” applies to Lana varies. Her career is certainly treated like that of a pop star, anyway: The frenzied countdowns to releases, the promo singles, the impassioned Trending Topics on Twitter, the merchandise, the music videos, the billboards, the sold out concerts and everything in between. But she couldn’t be further from a traditional mainstream pop star like Katy Perry — she doesn’t set out to create #1 hits, or even remotely attempt to craft modern-sounding music. She shies away from the spotlight. And aside from those hook-heavy melodies, her music is really more rooted in rock and jazz than anything else.
“I stand there and sing. I’m not that exciting,” she once said in 2012.
And yet, she’s worshipped all the same: She is the anti-pop pop superstar.
“You’re fucking crazy. You’re crazy for me.”
This is Lana’s cruel world, and we’re just living (to die) in it.
‘Ultraviolence’ was released on June 15. (iTunes)