Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

Whatever your personal opinion of her may be, there is one fact that is truly undeniable: Lana Del Rey is in a league of her own. If you don’t believe me, read her fantastically revealing cover piece with Fader. If you don’t feel like it, listen to her albums, watch her videos, read other interviews, watch the infamous SNL performance, and follow all of the ridiculous Internet hype surrounding the totality of it. After a sleeper debut album, Lana dropped “Video Games” in 2011 and was a superstar over night. And when I say superstar, I mean it in every sense of the phrase. She temporarily captivated the critics, made a TV appearance, and then instantaneously became the main choice of conversation for every cynical comment board on the Internet. Everyone has an opinion about Lana Del Rey, even before her actual music is the subject of conversation. She is polarizing in almost every plausible sense. While critical reception of her 2012 major label debut, Born To Die, and the companion EP, Paradise, weren’t horrible, the reviews themselves were chock full of personal attacks, bent on burying the 25 year-old singer who already had full biographies floating around on the web about how her career was bought with old money and so forth. And through it all, Lana remained at the top of the headlines.

Lana’s second major label LP and third overall, Ultraviolence, truly gives us the first post-hype LDR record. After avoiding live dates in the states for almost two straight years and letting the lurching dogs at the tabloids busy themselves with the lives of others, Lana’s name popped up near the top of several festival lineups around the beginning of the year. Reincorporating herself to all the venoms of the industry, Lana made her comeback slowly, announcing single after single, then a leading tour, and finally, the Dan Auerbach-helmed LP. The record’s bonus tracks have been floating around on the Internet for a year or so as ambiguous rarities, impostors, or otherwise. The rest of it fits perfectly into place as a Born To Die follow up, complete with copious amounts of nostalgia, brokenhearted wandering, and American hustle.

And yet, if you can’t help yourself and read the reviews anyways, only a small proportion of every one is dedicated to the music – Lana herself remains the target of criticism for reasons unbeknownst to her now massive fan-base. My theory is this: perhaps after three years of coffee table conversation, critical hubbub, and endless forum gossip, we still have no idea who Lana Del Rey really is. If you think there’s any form of coincidence there, you aren’t giving her music and her intricately assembled character a fair shake. Lana Del Rey is ahead of her time – she is truly among the first artists to completely transcend the wild west medium of the Internet in full form. Ultraviolence is the next chapter in her ongoing unique take on the American Dream. Many have told the tale in their own radically different way: John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Brett Easton Ellis, and Oliver Stone just to name a few. But Lana Del Rey’s new vision of the dream’s communication it what sets her apart from the competition. To borrow Factory Records mastermind Tony Wilson’s description of himself, love her or hate her, you can’t possibly ignore her.

Ultraviolence begins a bit farther on down the road than where Born To Die and Paradise left off. On Born To Die, Lana was a young girl caught in the throws of naive love and freedom by birth. Every track on the record reeks of romanticism. In Lana’s world, we are “Born To Die”, we worship James Dean for his mystery and misguided charm (“Blue Jeans”) and sensualize drug use and crime (“Off To The Races”), we sing a “National Anthem” to feverish lust and the blinding lights of Hollywood (the video, featuring A$AP Rocky as the president of the United States in the 60s communicates this message perfectly), and we justify everything we do as the way it is if you want to live the dream to the fullest (“This Is What Makes Us Girls”). Paradise and its accompanying short film Tropico took the same nuances to biblical proportions, mixing Of Mice and Men with Paradise Lost all soaked in remorseless hero worship (the Holy Trinity are depicted as John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis). A “Blue Velvet” cover thrown in here doesn’t hurt one bit – Lana’s surrealist world and its backwards motifs take a hint from Lynch’s film. The arrangements here are even more lush on those on Born To Die, seeing Lana plunging into an ocean of contrasting ideals trying to soak it all in with reckless disregard to the future. But as “Bel Air” closes the EP with a whisper, the shot fades out and an “INTERLUDE” seems to fade into focus. There is a conscious breath before Ultraviolence takes us under again for another brutal and brilliant round.

The Lana Del Rey we find on Ultraviolence is not the same young girl searching aimlessly for a lover and/or a father figure we saw on Born To Die and Paradise. Rather, she is a woman, hardened by the ways of the world, but aware enough to know how to get ahead. Musically, this is reflected in a drastic change of style. Dan Auerbach was a pitch-perfect choice of collaborator here, as the arrangements tend towards the blues, guitar-driven and paying more attention to the space in between notes rather than painting a continuous canvas under Lana’s feet. After all, it’s no longer endless fields of green – the road she’s on now is rocky, and Auerbach makes it feel that way, even in the lushest moments at hand here.

Ultraviolence opens with “Cruel World”, a track that resonates with dreamy, impressionistic energy that doesn’t sound anything like its title. In case you had forgotten what Lana’s world entails, “Cruel World” sets the scene in perfect form. Where one fling ends, another begins with another chance at connection and finding a place in the world. Lana’s new guy (or old guy, hard to tell) is a Johnny Cash type with an angry streak, a couple of girls on the side, and most of all, a ferocious love for her. Where Paradise saw the walls begin to crumble in on Lana’s perfect American ideal that we saw in full on Born To Die, here the building is devastated. On Ultraviolence, we are all just trying to hang on, and if there’s love, there aren’t many other questions as far as Lana is concerned. Here, her warbling voice gets the closest its ever gotten on tape to cracking at the point of explosion, and its a Lana track worthy of blowing your speakers on.

This message is further entrenched with the title track, which takes all of Lana’s classic American muses and throws in Anthony Burgess. Here, the album’s primary motif is introduced in classic Clockwork Orange style: what makes us feel? “Jim raised me up”, Lana sings, using physically abusive language to describe a relationship of teacher and student. The “Jim” at hand could be one of a handful: Jim Beam, Jim Baker, or Jim Morrison, only Lana can really tell. But any way you slice it, the message is the same: to feel human is to find your place in the world, whether it be on a stage, in a cult, or in the gutter. It’s a cold message that only Lana could bring with such grace.

Of course, Lana has communicated what her place in the world is to us pretty clearly over the last couple years: next to a man. There’s no other explanation for why “Shades of Cool”, “Brooklyn Baby”, and “West Coast” pile in one after another here. On each, Lana finds herself at the side of another James Dean. On “Shades”, it’s the aging gangster. On “Brooklyn”, it’s the boyfriend in the band who sings Lou Reed. And on “West Coast”, it’s the cowboy with the rough hands and the ranch house with the balcony. In each instance, Lana reaffirms her place in the picture. She never stops at describing the man in her life – it’s always where she is relative to him. This life was first pictured on Lana’s biggest track, “Video Games” – only a life worth living if somebody is loving you. There is so much art to the subtlety here. Even when Lana first released the audio to “West Coast”, it was played over a 15 second loop of the soon to come video in which we saw Lana being pulled into the arms of her man over and over again for four minutes. If you don’t think this was on purpose, you are kidding yourself.

The feelings of place and security are warped in the next phase of Ultraviolence on “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry”. On both, Lana is miserable in the relationship she finds herself in, either as the “bitch on the side” on “Sad Girl” or the deserted faithful companion on “Pretty When You Cry”. But in both contexts, Lana knows who she is and what part she plays in the larger scheme of things. The aimless pagan wanderings of Born To Die have come full circle here, as Lana is comforted by her misery. But self-knowing in misery is still better than naive bliss, right?

Actually, no – Lana figures that one out pretty quick, and “Money Power Glory” is an adrenaline shot in the arm that takes us into Ultraviolence part 2. The key ingredient in Lana’s story thus far is powerlessness. “My life it comprises of loss and wins and fails and falls”, Lana sings, acknowledging the compromising state she finds herself in. She is in a place of submission (“I can do it if you really really like that”) and her security depends on that subjection for its longevity. But Lana wants what’s coming to her, and here, she turns the tables. The wording of the chorus is perfect, first just wanting “money, power, and glory”, then later, “money, and all your power, and all your glory”. Finally, “dope and diamonds” is repeated numerous times at the end. Literal in the ongoing grindhouse narrative of the Lana Del Rey story, but figurative in the development of her character, “Money Power Glory” ends with a bang. Powerless before, Lana now wants an expensive habit to take her away from the rocky road ahead of her (dope) and wants her competition to be envious (diamonds). With the motivation taken care of, all Lana needs is the means, and “Fucked My Way To The Top” is a pretty straightforward follow up. Here, Lana finds herself in similar situations as the first half of the record, but the power relationship at hand is entirely different. She is no longer an object – rather, the objectification has become a power source to rise above. Musically, the track is almost a direction continuation of “Money Power Glory” – Auerbach makes every chapter of Ultraviolence feel impossibly continuous.

We’ve reached the apex of the record, and in traditional narrative style, “Old Money” is the falling action. It’s lonely at the top, and Lana questions her place there. The arrangement switches from Auerbach’s blues to Paradise-esque orchestral ballad, almost as if Lana is remembering the naivety of her youth, and even considering the possibility that she’s believed a lie this whole time. In a lot of ways, “Old Money” is the better version of Lana’s Great Gatsby track “Young and Beautiful”. The thematic vibes are very similar here – money and prowess only give you satisfaction for so long before the feeling is squeezed out of the orange (there’s Burgess again).

“The Other Woman” is a brutal bookend to Ultraviolence, directly contrasting everything that “Cruel World” introduced us to at the beginning of the record. Now apart from the perfect other lives of “Shades of Cool”, “Brooklyn Baby”, and “West Coast”, Lana looks through the glass at her replacement and sees a queen. And when Lana sings that center verse and Auerbach strums a quiet lounge guitar, she returns to the bar stage to sing her lonesome song. With Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Vallens before her, she has found her place once again, darker and lonelier. But at the very least, she knows her broken heart is beating.

Another album in the hole, it’s clear that the character Elizabeth Grant has created in Lana Del Rey is a keeper. She has immersed herself in the entire media presence to the point that the two can’t be separated, and if you ask my opinion, that’s pretty brilliant. There are other artists who have done similar things in the past couple years, but the unapologetic point to which Grant and Lana are integrated is a statement. Grant makes no excuses or explanations on Lana’s behalf. The more pointed fingers that are thrown her way, the more Lana Del Rey becomes a thing of myth. Lana Del Rey is everywoman to some extent – there’s a reason why “Brooklyn Baby” and “West Coast” are back to back. Existing more in the ether than on the cold ground beneath us, Lana Del Rey mixes vintage Americanism with the comparative culture and idealism of the Internet to create a character and commentary without bounds. Working with Dan Auerbach on this record was a brilliant choice – the two have created a bare-knuckled sequel to Born To Die that improves on the original at every turn. Where the former was set in a flashbulb Hollywoodland a million miles away, Ultraviolence puts Lana Del Rey in a bitter context not too far removed from our own. As she communicated to Fader, Lana is a woman who is not afraid to do what she wants, regardless of the mudslinging that is bound to come in one form or another. But if some name-calling is the price to pay to break the cycle of the Clockwork Orange, Lana is coming out the other end of the tunnel with an American flag held high, whipping in the wind.

Ultraviolence is out now on Interscope. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. The bonus tracks on the deluxe CD are worth hearing, if only to dive into more short stories set in the bleak and beautiful Lana Del Rey universe. If you prefer more post-modern cover art for your vinyl, head to Urban Outfitters. Lana Del Rey stopped by Seattle last month and is currently touring through Europe.

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