Lana Del Rey, 'Ultraviolence': Track-by-Track Album Review
After the critical drubbing she withstood from late 2011 through early 2012, Lana Del Rey would have been well justified in packing up her party dresses and heart-shaped sunglasses and secluding herself in some Hollywood mansion, "Sunset Boulevard"-style. Branded an untalented, anti-feminist, prefabricated fraud by scores of online haters, Del Rey told U.K. Vogue in February 2012 that she might never record a follow-up to "Born to Die," the album that established her as one of the most divisive musical figures of the digital age. Thankfully, she had a change of heart.
On "Ultraviolence" — her third studio LP and second since transforming herself from mild-mannered retro songstress Lizzie Grant into the hyper-stylized post-modern glamour queen we've all come to love and/or hate — Del Rey once again dives into the depravity of American culture. She sings about drugs, cars, money, and the bad boys she's always falling for, and while there remains a sepia-toned mid-century flavor to many of these songs, LDR is no longer fronting like a thugged-out Bettie Davis.
Instead, she hands the bulk of the production duties to Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, whose back-to-basics rock 'n' roll aesthetic serves these tracks well. Auerbach offers a more sedate take on the "Born to Die" template, lightening the orchestrations, ditching the hip-hop beats, and presenting Lana as a perpetually scorned pop-noir fugitive — part Neko Case, part Katy Perry. It's a delicious contrast that makes for a surprisingly great album. Read on to get our track-by-track take of this sublime summer bum-out.
"Cruel World": Lana goes Mazzy Star on this woozy, bluesy slow-burner about a self-professed crazy girl who's just removed herself from a destructive relationship. "I shared my body and my mind with you," she sings in a codeine haze, "but that's all over now." More relieved than heartbroken, she's wandering the desert in her red party dress, contemplating her next move.
"Ultraviolence": Much like the book "A Clockwork Orange," where the term "ultra violence" originates, this song conflates sex and aggression in some thrilling and disturbing ways. The piano and strings are maudlin enough to suggest Lana isn't bragging when she describes herself as "filled with poison but blessed with beauty and rage," so feminist detractors might consider the possible presence of irony before deciding to pounce.
"Shades of Cool": On the previous track, Del Rey references the 1962 Crystals single "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)." Here, she effectively updates another of that group's Phil Spector-produced gems, "He's a Rebel." The Chevy Malibu-driving dude she's pining for here will never, ever be any good, and as Lana laments her inability to fix this broken troublemaker, singing with uncharacteristic tenderness, the ghostly track builds toward a monstrous guitar solo. This Bonnie and Clyde love affair won't end much better than Bonnie and Clyde's.
"Brooklyn Baby": For much of "Ultraviolence," Lana plays used and abused women wearing brave faces. On this, the closest she comes to a summer jam, she's on roughly equal footing with the man in her life. "Well my boyfriend's in a band," she sings, "he plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed." It's a retro love song for outer-borough wasters, and while it ain't exactly a generational anthem, the characters are among the most ambitious -— and certainly the least damaged —- on the record.
"West Coast": No one symbolizes sexy Southern California self-destruction quite like Stevie Nicks, and here, Del Rey and Auerbach cleverly evoke fragments of the legendary singer's 1982 solo hit "Edge of Seventeen." As always, Auerbach keeps the instrumentation spare and rootsy, but he gives this one a sexy swing not found elsewhere on the disc. When Snoop Dogg makes his alt-country album, he should start here.
"Sad Girl": On the album's most affecting ballad, Lana talks a big game, attempting to justify her status as some guy's "bad bitch on the side," but the chorus suggests she's having second thoughts. "He's got that fire," she sings, deeply hurt yet still a little turned on, unsure of how much longer she's willing to get burned.
"Pretty When You Cry": For as steely as she can sound, Lana sure knows how to switch on the childlike vulnerability. On this dark and twangy dirge about a man who always lets her down, Lana goes searching for sunshine and comes up with nothing. The best she can tell herself: "I'm pretty when you cry." That's something, though beauty might have gotten her into this mess in the first place.
"Money, Power, Glory": Done being the doormat, Del Rey pumps real venom into this seething slow jam. "You should run, boy, run," she sings, delivering that warning with deadly seriousness a dash of sex. It's like she's painting her nails as she prepares to squeeze some rich dude for all he's worth. It sounds cold, calculating — "Dope and diamonds, that's all that I'm about," she tells us — but hey, this slimeball probably has it coming.
"Fucked My Way Up to the Top": Yet again, Lana's on the attack, using her feminine wiles as high-precision weapons. She's also baiting her feminist foes, though she recently told The Fader about a seven-year relationship she had with a label exec, so lines like, "I fucked my way to the top / this is my show" might be her way of responding to gossipers. Either way, it's another complex song about the perils of being a pretty young thing in a world run by old moneyed men.
"Old Money": Speaking of old money, much of the controversy surrounding Del Rey has to do with her background. She's the daughter of an Internet entrepreneur, and she attended private school in Connecticut, so immediately, people had her pegged as a rich girl working connections. On "Born to Die," she approached upper-middle-class society with over-the-top cynicism, singing about drunken debutantes and tawdry gold-diggers. On "Old Money," she goes too far in the opposite direction, turning in a subtle ballad whose ambivalent lyrics just read vague.
"The Other Woman": The moral of the "Ultraviolence" story: being a sexy plaything for powerful men ain't all it's cracked up to be. Del Rey closes the album by saying so explicitly and covering an old standard famously recorded by Nina Simone in 1959. Lana has a knack for recontextualizing vintage ballads — her restrained "Blue Velvet" wasn't the Lynchian creep-fest it could have been — and here, she lets her voice quiver like that of a lonely old homewrecker taking stock of her life. If you still don't feel sorry for her, just wait for the true-blue doo-wop sax.