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.