Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

There were plenty of good reasons not to like Born To Die, Lana Del Rey’s first album, and there were plenty of bad reasons, too. I hated the album, for reasons both good and bad. Good reasons: It was thin and underwritten and brittle and overproduced, its album tracks lacking the grand fucked-out majesty of early singles “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” and it felt like it was rushed to market once those early singles started to resonate. The bad: I was pissed at her for not being the second coming of Fiona Apple (who came back later that year anyway) and because her lyrics came off like “a drunk chick at the bar trying to convince someone to come home with her.” The Fiona Apple thing wasn’t fair; it was me trying to fit an existing artist into a preexisting mold. The “drunk chick” thing was worse, and not just for the slut-shaming sexism in the language I used. That drunk-chick thing — or a more glamorous variant on it, anyway — is the Lana Del Rey character. When LDR’s backstory first circulated, when people realized that she’d started out as a journeyman singer-songwriter named Lizzy Grant, internet malcontents held this up as evidence that LDR wasn’t authentic. But of course she wasn’t authentic. Inauthenticity was a a massively important part of her entire project, one of the engines that gave her entire persona its force. It’s like how Vampire Weekend started out satirizing Ivy League privilege while at the same time embodying its stereotypes. Lana Del Rey is a construction. And now that the former Lizzy Grant has had a longer time to develop and inhabit that construction, she’s made an album leagues beyond her debut. Ultraviolence is a gorgeous, shattering piece of work, and it’s just as euphorically fake as Born To Die was. It’s just that LDR fakes it realer now.

The difference between Born To Die and Ultraviolence is vast, and I chalk it to the two years of experience that Lana Del Rey has had in playing her character. It’s like when a supporting actor on a TV show suddenly makes a leap two seasons in. LDR is a very specific character: A coastal-elite pillhead, a girl who strings rich men along and falls for drug-dealer dirtbags. She’s juggling relationships where she has all the power and relationships where she has none. She’s obsessed with transforming herself into a glamorous archetype even as she’s figuring out that the glamorous-archetype lifestyle is no way to live. She knows that people think the way she acts is fucked up, and she delights in the judgement of others, even as she realizes she’s not really doing anything to make herself happier. And as a lyricist, she’s gotten great at laying out those contradictions in a few quick strokes, leaving much to the imagination. A song like “Sad Girl” is, in some ways, a fascinating work of side-piece blues: “Being a bad bitch on the side / It might not appeal to fools like you / Creeping around while he gets high / It might not be something you would do / But you haven’t seen my man.” Then, a few lines later, she’s chanting “I’m a sad girl” over and over, and you don’t really see any reason to disbelieve her.

There’s an element of satire to what Lana Del Rey does, and that sometimes comes through more clearly than it does other times. On “Brooklyn Baby,” the sneer is only barely implied: “Well, my boyfriend’s in the band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed / I’ve got feathers in my hair / I get down to Beat poetry / And my jazz collection’s rare / I can play most anything / I’m a Brooklyn baby.” But there’s a quiet kind of empathy there, too. As with any great performance artist, it’s never entirely clear where Lizzy Grant ends and Lana Del Rey begins, and when she gets into the seriously sad stuff in her character’s situation — like on the title track, where she seems to fall under an abusive cult leader’s control — she projects a sense of soft tragedy, a vulnerability that doesn’t feel remotely faked. She gets the grim attraction in self-destructive living, and she gets its price, too.

Musically, too, she’s light years from where she was. The awkward clipped half-rapping she tried out on a few Born To Die album tracks is gone altogether, and she’s got more languid grace in her voice. It’s funny; LDR became a big star almost accidentally, thanks to an EDM “Summertime Sadness” remix that couldn’t be further from her regular style. But she hasn’t adapted that sensibility into what she does on Ultraviolence. If anything, she’s moved further away from it and understood that she’s a straight-up torch-song singer, one whose songs need to throb, not thump. Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach seemed like a perversely terrible choice to produce the album, but I can’t imagine anyone doing better with these songs. (Thought experiment: Imagine if Danger Mouse had produced Ultraviolence, how fucking awful that would’ve been.) The glorious seven-minute opener “Cruel World” twinkles and sighs, lazily encircling LDR’s voice like a halo of opium smoke. “West Coast” has a dazed ripple, a quiet danger that reminds me of prime-period Chris Isaak. “Money Power Glory” is a stately hymn, its music lending a sort of nobility to the lyrics’ conquer-everything mentality. Auerbach solos throughout all these songs, but his guitars are quiet, buried murmurs. They don’t seize the spotlight; they add to the atmosphere.

I liked Ultraviolence so much that I felt compelled to go back to Born To Die to figure out whether I’d been wrong about it the first time. The verdict: Nope. That album is still mostly crap. By that same token, the bonus tracks that will appear on many editions of Ultraviolence are entirely crap. And that’s fine. They’re bonus tracks for a reason. And the slow, transgressive power of Ultraviolence is no accident. If anything, the suckiness of those bonus tracks is an encouraging sign. LDR, it would seem, is figuring out quality control. She’s writing a ton of songs and keeping the best ones, relegating the others to B-side status, fleshing out her best moments until they achieve a terrible sort of beauty. And given the leap between her first album and her second, I can’t wait to hear what she does next time, when she’s had even more time to explore her character’s nuances.

Ultraviolence is out 6/17 on Interscope.

Comments (45)
  1. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  2. This is exactly what I was hoping to hear. I think a lot of what Tom is discussing in terms of her evolution was apparent from “West Coast” and “Shades of Cool.” Will be streaming this later for sure.

    Also, indescribably glad to hear she dropped the whole rappity-rapping Betty Boop / Jessica Rabbit thing. That was some lame shit.

  3. I’m not into this type of music but i liked it. Dan Auerbach as a producer in here, is better than a leader and composer in the last dissapointing Black Keys album. Go back to the times of Attack & Release please.

  4. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  5. a really well written piece. nice job Tom

  6. Grimes on “Brooklyn Baby”: “literally the best song ive ever heard

  7. I still can’t get into LDR because I don’t enjoy being force fed a character, lifestyle, or in the most cynical cases a marketing technique, when I’m trying to enjoy music. In this case, I don’t enjoy that especially when I’m trying to enjoy music that is already difficult for me to enjoy.

    I listen to all of these singles and I hear someone who took the white, middle class urban Tumblrite aesthetic and decided she wanted to turn it into two records, and that is the very definition of lame as fuck. So she’s learning that her bullshit is indeed bullshit and that makes her sad. But why are we celebrating the fact that LDR has gotten better at faking everyone out to the point where it’s kind of enjoyable? Why are we celebrating having typical romanticized imagery of being an oh-so-broody soul wistfully whispered in our ears like she’s the first one to ever have self-loathing thoughts?

    And before any LDR stans come from the Facebook link and call me sexist for hating this stuff, I want you to know that the only reason I even took the time to write this is because it is beyond me that Tom thinks this is good but doesn’t like tune-yards, and that is just plain silly.

    • Hear, hear!

      There’s nothing authentic about LDR, and it really ruins the whole thing for me. I can see why some people may like it, but as for me, I just can’t get past this stupid character and the pouty-lipped vocal delivery.

      • Man, you’re gonna hate hip hop then. I know I demand authenticity from artists like Rick Ross before I can enjoy their music. In fact I heard that Dre isn’t even a doctor!

    • You are allowed to dislike tUnE-yArDs you know.

    • You said exactly what I wanted to, except in a manner that didn’t garner endless downvotes. I am curious to give this a once through just on the basis of Tom’s write up, but I don’t think I’m gonna like it for the aforementioned reasons.

      Tom’s characterization of her in the second paragraph – “A coastal-elite pillhead, a girl who strings rich men along and falls for drug-dealer dirtbags.” Etc… Nicely written, but I cannot for the life of me fathom what is remotely interesting about this “character,” or why I should give a shit about her problems. This individual is, to borrow Wesley’s language, lame as fuck. The lyrics are gonna pull me right away from whatever enjoyment I may be getting from the music.

      And I’ll bite constantino- I may be the only individual on the internet (though certainly not among my friends) who thinks tune-yards produce just about the most irritating music I’ve heard. Be a quirky white girl from Connecticut, make grating “wee-ooo” fire truck noises, put on a loop, sing about what it’s like blah blah rasta, rinse, repeat. Proceed to garner critical acclaim.

    • I know what you mean. I feel like Tom’s description of the character is actually more interesting and appealing than the character itse

    • I agree with you about not liking her character but after listening to Ultraviolence I have to say the persona is at least more palatable. The music now at least fits the persona better whereas Born to Die threw in too many Top 40 attempts that ,coupled with her persona, made the whole thing unbearable. The pieces fit better this time.

    • I agree to everything you said, but I’m also bobbing my head to Brooklyn Baby too so whatevs..

    • I tried to say this the other day in a post but you said it SO MUCH BETTER.

      Well done.

    • Not a Bowie fan I take it?

  8. I like it because she has taken the commercial success and fame from her first album and come back with something completely opposite to what her label would’ve wanted. A*

  9. Great review, but I would say that Black Beauty, a bonus track, is actually a good song.

  10. I must admit, it was a quite good listen, and I’ll leave it at that.

  11. I’m basically alone in this, but I feel like everything she’s done, “Video Games” included, has been awful. This is a good writeup though, even though I don’t really agree with it.

  12. I hate Lana Del Rey’s persona so freaking much and all of her previous stuff, so much so I’m surprised I ever gave her first new track (West Coast?) a chance, but damn if the chorus to Shades of Cool isn’t one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in a long time. That, coupled with this great write up, has convinced me to give this album a once through.

  13. “and not just for the slut-shaming sexism”

    lol stop

  14. God I hate when people feel the need to semi-apologize for saying things like “her lyrics came off like a drunk chick at the bar trying to convince someone to come home with her.” That’s not “slut-shaming sexism,” it’s a reasonably accurate criticism and you know it. There’s no double standard, it would be legitimate negative comment regardless of gender (“a drunk bro at the bar trying to convince someone to come home with him”). Calling everything sexism demeans actual sexism.

  15. Nothing even approaching her 3 great songs, but then neither is anyone else, so you can’t hold that against her. A few good songs. Good aesthetic direction. This album oughta solve the massively annoying problem of huge crowds singing along to her every word. I’m excited for the next album.

  16. I might catch some flak for this, but I’m left feeling this is a bit bland. I’ll admit I never liked LDR’s music, but Tom’s review made me enthusiastic to hear it; I guess that’s a testament to his good writing style.

    I feel like the soundscape she has constructed here is a very grey, fatigued place. I can see why her breathy vocal style appeals, but to me it sounds passionless. It seems to maintain a plodding momentum which never exerts energy and becomes tiresome because of it. It sort of has the atmosphere of being trapped inside a stuffy, UV lit room on a sunny day; in a temperature which brings out a latent layer of clammy sweat and makes the air feel thick as you breath it. Does that make sense? Probably not. I think a lot of my criticism is what other people enjoy; the claustrophobic atmosphere is part of the catharsis. Fair enough to you if you enjoy it, but perhaps I prefer my catharsis grand, overt and practically dripping with screaming emotion like Lykke Li’s latest record.

    Well, I gave it a chance at least.

  17. This album is so much better than Born to Die in every way. Cruel World is huge.

  18. I guess I’m just not overthinking it too much when I listen, because I like it; it’s kinda sexy.

  19. Neon Icon deserves a Premature Evaluation next!

  20. Thing is, after listening the album a 2nd, 3rd, 4th time today, my appreciation for songs as Sad Girl and Guns And Roses increased – in general I was pleasantly surprised with this album – although in my opinion it’s again an up and down mixture of quality – LDR still can do better.

    About style and marketing product a.s.o. a.s.o.: Could be right, but I don’t care about that.

    Will she overcome her repeating themes one day writing lyrics? If she tries, she takes a risk. Yet again that would fit her.

    Is this album better than the previous one? I suppose so. That was needed. And to be honest: unexpected.

  21. I don’t care what anyone says, I genuinely really like the album – except from the track Guns N’ Roses – and theres a few tracks that I absolutely love. Job well done.

  22. Its def better than her last. I hope they give AOTW to The Antlers instead of White Lung but I doubt it.

  23. Ultraviolence is a great record, but you’re out of your god damn mind if you think Born To Die is anything but brilliant. Not to mention the 150+ unreleased songs she’s got out there. She’s the best songwriter I’ve heard in a long time.

  24. Remember when everyone on stereogum made fun of Lana Del Rey together?

  25. Pretty good album, I like it.

  26. ultraviolence? that is a term used the clockwork orange which this little princess obviously copied..she is trying to be provocative and catch attention…go back to your gated community home with your parents spoiled white bitch

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