ULTRAVIOLENCE TRACKLIST (DELUXE)
1. CRUEL WORLD
3. SHADES OF COOL
4. BROOKLYN BABY
5. WEST COAST
6. SAD GIRL
7. PRETTY WHEN YOU CRY
8. MONEY POWER GLORY
9. FUCKED MY WAY UP TO THE TOP
10. OLD MONEY
11. THE OTHER WOMAN
12. BLACK BEAUTY
13. GUNS AND ROSES
14. FLORIDA KILOS
ITUNES BONUS TRACKS
15. IS THIS HAPPINESS
This past Tuesday marked the release of Lana Del Rey’s sophomore effort, Ultraviolence. A moody, melodic album that aptly utilizes the production talents of The Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach (he’s credited on nine out of fourteen tracks on the Deluxe edition), Ultraviolence unapologetically embraces the labels heaped upon her by mainstream critics and indie pundits alike: cinematic, lush, dark, depressed, romantic, dreamy, longing. To say that these journalists are exaggerating or distorting her image as a dark horse within mainstream pop would be incorrect. Del Rey is David Lynch’s answer to a pop star, sometimes posing as the young woman singing from inside of the radiator, sometimes posing as Laura Palmer. She is subversive as an artist because we know exactly what to expect; some think that if they believe with enough sincerity, Del Rey will pass some kind of authenticity test with flying colors. Whether or not you find the Bohemian parts of her backstory the stuff of complete self-made mythology or face value truth, Del Rey knows how to cater to her strengths. Ultraviolence uses many of the themes found in her debut. There’s talk of a “pretty red dress” and “diamonds and pearls” and bad men who stomp on hearts. It’s true to form; the album relies on nostalgia and the allure of retro-chic. Del Rey’s fascination with heightened Old Hollywood glamour is part of what draws in loyal listeners.
Following the release of Born to Die, Del Rey expressed doubts about making another album. The period of uncertainty didn’t last too long; she began work on Ultraviolence in February 2013. As the campaign for the new album unrolled, it became clear that she’d traded pounding bass and hip hop beats for woozy guitars, but the singer was the same “character.” Del Rey’s persona is a carefully tuned vow to never break character. The artist, formerly known as Lizzy Grant, aka government-issued name Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, crafts her musical narratives to reflect literary behemoths such as Nabokov, Hemingway and Whitman. Her literary interests are a driving force behind her work and it shows; the subjects of love and death are grandiose and interchangeable.
The opening track, “Cruel World,” is the perfect mixture of The Black Keys and Del Rey’s cinematic writing tendencies. Her voice wavers between Marilyn-Monroe-husky-babydoll to wailing. As the longest track on the album running 6:39, it’s a near seven minute juggling act of menacing defiance and resigned disappointment.
The song’s lo-fi surf-rock vibe sets the tone for the subsequent tracks. The album luxuriates in melancholy and fantasizes about the many ways that love can be fatal. “Ultraviolence,” the title track, is smartly placed after the emotional heaviness of Cruel World. In an obvious nod to inspirations, there’s a line from “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” by 60s girl group The Crystals. There’s been speculation that “Ultraviolence” is an allusion to A Clockwork Orange but it’s neither been confirmed nor denied. Regardless, “Ultraviolence” fits nicely within the musical canon of Del Rey: the collision of love, submission and power.
In “Shades of Cool,” there’s a James Bond song bubbling beneath the surface. This reference isn’t meant to be underhandedly sarcastic; the production and Del Rey’s vulnerability call upon the sweeping, grandiose inflection of “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Nobody Does It Better.”
By the time we hit “Brooklyn Baby,” Del Rey has flung herself into the deep end of her iconography obsession. The song, originally intended to be a collaboration with Lou Reed before his death, conjures a sepia-filtered Brooklyn landscape that even the crew from Lena Dunham’s GIRLS probably would have a hard time recognizing. Instead of the Whole Foods hipster of 2014, it’s an amphetamine hazy hipster living through debauchery familiar to Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg. Although she’s got a “boyfriend in a band” and she smokes “hydroponic weed,” Del Rey croons about “the freedom land of the seventies” and “getting down to beat poetry” and having a rare jazz collection. It’s songwriting enjoyably drunk on hypersaturation.
“West Coast” refuses conventional pop song structure, creeping into a slower tempo at the chorus. It also serves as a successful example of what happens when Del Rey’s film noir aesthetics are shaped by like minded direction. When asked about Del Rey, Dan Auerbach told the New York Times, “They [her songs] felt old and new at the same time.”
Although it starts off with biting lyrics that will surely encourage raised eyebrows from those who accuse her of promoting misogyny and antiquated gender roles (Me and my mistress on the side/It might appear to fools like you), “Sad Girl” starts to get laborsome around the middle and stretches into a downtrodden five minutes. “Pretty When You Cry” is a stripped down and simplified rehash of obvious Del Rey tropes. Things start to pick up again with “Money Power Glory,” which Del Rey said is a flippant, sarcastic response to her naysayers.
If “Money Power Glory” is a subdued response to her more vocal critics, “Fucked My Way Up To The Top” is a middle finger in the face (I’m a dragon/You’re a whore). Or if you browse the gossip blogs, it could be a diss track hand delivered to a certain Born This Way singer.
The tenth track, “Old Money,” utilizes atmosphere building and is faintly reminiscent of “Bel Air” in the sense that it creates rootless yet Cinemascope ready and approved images (blue hydrangea, cold cash, divine/Cashmere, cologne and white sunshine). The inclusion of “The Other Woman,” a cover of a Nina Simone song, certainly fits with the running theme of desperation by the hands of men. Del Rey’s voice takes on the crackle of a loneliness that threatens to be paid in tears.
The final three tracks, “Black Beauty,” “Guns And Roses,” and “Florida Kilos” are probably the weakest efforts. By the time you’ve listened to the proceeding eleven tracks, these last three are like a coma that follows a high-octane sugar rush. The imagery and narratives venture drop all pretense and mimic flash-in-the-pan summer blockbusters. The Harmony Korine assisted track, “Florida Kilos,” boasts a drug-fueled delirium that feels like a tacked-on leftover for the Spring Breakers sequel.
The first iTunes bonus track, “Is This Happiness,” is a restrained yet compelling mixture of literary iconography (You think you’re Hunter S. Thompson) and the disingenuous splendor of glamour (I’ve been to Hollywood Hills taking violet pills). The piano arrangement coupled with the appropriate timing of strings are somewhat reminiscent of “Young and Beautiful,” swirling around Del Rey’s tortured torch song vocals. The bitter power struggle between the song’s protagonist and the nameless male paramour in question calls to mind the dysfunctional relationship of Fitzgerald’s Daisy and Gatsby or even the author himself and Zelda. However, with the insertion of modern slang (You like to rage, don’t do that), Del Rey succeeds in creating a song that cannot be pinned to one decade. The repeated chorus of “Is this happiness?” is a question that further emphasizes the chaos and the enormous tension within the relationship, hinting that the answer is a disappointing no.
The second iTunes bonus track, “Flipside,” is a serving of fuzzy garage-rock guitar with plenty of falsetto. Del Rey noted that California and New York City helped shape this album; “Flipside” straddles two opposing coasts, ending on an ethereal reverberation of a guitar chord.
At this point, if you dislike Del Rey, Ultraviolence is never going to win you over. After all, if Del Rey prefers to discuss space travel and Tesla over feminism, what makes you think she even cares about the opinions of her detractors? Perhaps the depiction of love and relationships on Ultraviolence are too morbid to appeal to fans of Adele and is too invested in the stars of days past to ever attract the people clamoring for club bangers. Despite the occasional fumble, Ultraviolence is the result of the master temporarily taming the muse with a little help from encouraging mentors.
Vanessa Willoughby is a graduate of Emerson College and The New School. Her work has appeared on The Huffington Post, Nerve.com, Bitch Media, Fault Magazine, and The Toast.