Lana Del Rey’s New Album Limns Darkness and Light

By Caren Badtke

Lana Del Rey’s third album is a concept album. Following Lana Del Ray (2008) and Born To Die (2012), Ultraviolence maintains a hyper-melancholic and dark, yet warm atmosphere during its first half, however fades into oblivion during the other.

Ultraviolence is a collection of stories that have already been broached in the artist’s sophomore album Born To Die, yet here they appear in a new light. Several recurring motifs and personas, as well as pop cultural references, continuously grace Del Rey’s lyrics. While her then self-titled first album Lana Del Ray (the singer called herself Lizzie Grant and Lana Del Ray before switching it to Del Rey) mostly remained under the radar and Born To Die elevated her to Hollywood’s (temporary) olymp, Ultraviolence can be classified her darkest, least appropriate album in terms of radio airplay. Beforehand, Del Rey had stated that the album was going to be “wrong and exquisite” but “so dark it’s almost unlistenable”. Produced by Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) and Rick Nowels, Ultraviolence does not incorporate any of that upbeat, bubblegum-and-cherry-pop that made Del Rey a modern Nancy Sinatra before, but rather claims a delicate, bluesy tone.

The album’s opener, “Cruel World,” starts off with a quiet, distorted electric guitar that could easily be attributed to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” though not with the song it shares its name with (“Goodbye Cruel World”). Although the pace and texture are quite unusual for Del Rey, she easily falls into character when it comes to the lyrics: “Put my little red party dress on/get a little bit of Bourbon in you” references Lolita, a recurring figure in Del Rey’s musical universe, deriving from Dolores in Vladimir Nabakov’s 1955 novel “Lolita.” Carmen, another name for this persona, hints at the hardships encountered in Del Rey’s personal experience. Desperation, loneliness, and the longing for somebody to take care of her: Del Rey makes it no secret that she has “daddy issues”. Growing up in a trailer park, Elizabeth Grant, the woman now known as Lana Del Rey, was sent to boarding school due to her dependance on alcohol at age 15. In the media, she often appears to be pessimist. In a recent interview, Del Rey caused quite a stir by stating that she “wish[es she] was dead already.”

The album’s title track, “Ultraviolence,” has a more familiar feel to it: orchestral instrumentation with a heavy focus on the violins, which Del Rey adapts in the lyrics as well, “I can hear violins, violins, give me all of that Ultraviolence.” Another recurring persona appears in this song; “Jim” who is the cult leader. Del Rey stated that she had in fact once been part of an underground cult, and worshipped its leader whom she also had a relationship with. Jim deems it necessary to break his too pretty protégée’s spirit so she can fully commit. He is abusive towards his girlfriend, who welcomes the violence because of her self-loathe, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.”

In “Brooklyn Baby,” Del Rey switches between Lolita and Diva personas. Reportedly, Del Rey was supposed to work on this song with the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, who sadly passed away on the day they were planning on recording the song together. The line “My boyfriend […] plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed” honors the late musician, who would have supported Del Rey during the outro: “My boyfriend’s pretty cool/But he’s not as cool as me/Because I’m a Brooklyn Baby…”  Here, she revisits the cool, untouchable persona she has already launched in Born To Die‘s “National Anthem.”

Ultraviolence‘s lead single “West Coast,” noticeably produced by The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach, is nurtured by a bluesy rhythm and plays with agogic accents. The singer temporarily slows down towards the end of its pre-chorus, creating a dizzying effect that supports the lyrical references to alcohol. “Sad Girl” tells the story of a never ending mistress-ship. The persona Del Rey portrays states that even though it makes her sad, she cannot help but “Creep[…] around on the side.” In her obsession with vintage Hollywood, Lana Del Rey is the latest addition to the good-bad-girls, a hybrid of  naïve good girl persona with a healthy dose of sex appeal, and therefore the ideal woman for Americans. Del Rey is, interestingly enough, far more popular on the European continent than she is in the U.S.

“Pretty When You Cry” depicts Lana Del Rey at her most vulnerable, which is further enhanced by vocal effects that make her voice appear desperate, almost to a point where it’s whiny. The cause for these feelings is once again a destructive relationship. Similar to the record’s Rick-Novel-produced song “Shades Of Cool” and her Paradise EP’s song “Yayo,” Del Rey describes a relationship with a man whose dependance on drugs destroys not only him but her as well. Despite that, she continues to silently weep on the sidelines instead of leaving him. At the same time, “Pretty When You Cry” is the start of the more uninteresting second part of the album. “Money, Power, Glory,” its follow-up track, maintains a sleepy, soft rock rhythm until it thrives into an opulent chorus. Its lyrics are repetitive and wearisome, as are the lyrics of “Fucked My Way Up To The Top” despite its blunt title. But boy, does it sound good when Del Rey curses!

“Old Money” is the “Video Games” of Ultraviolence, but sadly, it does not contribute any importance to this album. Musically, these and the following songs are decent, but compared to the first tracks on the album, they seem trite, letting the album fade out in what one could compare to an epilogue. Since it is unusual to compress the strongest song to one part of the album, one could account Del Rey for deliberately dividing the album into a stronger and a weaker part instead of hammocking the space between the good songs with the not so good songs.

Nonetheless, Ultraviolence is inherently consistent in its dark, melancholic atmosphere. It will be hardly accessible for people unwilling to embark on the concept of what is Lana Del Rey, and even though Ultraviolence is not avantgardistic, it plays with cliché, it mosaics together what has been already there without appearing trashy. The pastiche of loneliness running like a threat through Lana Del Rey’s lyrics is valid when it comes to the space Del Rey occupies in the music industry.

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