Ultraviolence is the third studio album from New York’s queen of sadcore – Lana Del Rey. Despite the success of Born To Die, Lana Del Rey hinted that there wouldn’t be a follow up album at all. Perhaps deterred by the initial mixed reviews, subsequent over analysis and critique of her unusual vocals and persona. Take her or leave her, there is no denying that Born To Die was a breath of fresh air in an ailing pop market and Video Games is one of the best songs of recent years.
With Ultraviolence, Lana sticks to her tried and tested formula of breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque vocals and songs about bad boys, heartache and little red dresses. Ultraviolence, however, is much more subtle than Born to Die. Gone are the sweeping strings and heavy orchestration and in their place are psychedelic guitars and echoing, hazy vocals. Produced by The Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence is bluesy and smooth, flowing at an unwavering pace.
The album is best appreciated in its entirety rather than stand alone tracks or singles. It is more cohesive than Born To Die yet maintaining Del Rey’s signature cinematic and melancholic sound. Lana Del Rey refrains from the cutesy baby vocals we are already familiar with, signalling a desire that she has grown as an artist and is more comfortable with her voice, or she has lost confidence in her ability to perform vocal gymnastics due to the criticism and parodying of her style on Born To Die.
However much the music has changed, the subject matter of her lyrics has not. Sticking to her themes of sex, drugs, violence and death, she continues to show her influences of retro Americana and glamorous old Hollywood.
The first track of Ultraviolence – Cruel World – works well as the opening for this album, reintroducing us to Lana Del Rey’s sultry lounge singer style with hints of 60s psychedelia. It conjures images of a bedraggled beauty queen wandering barefoot through a desert in a tattered red party dress. Lana sings of a relationship gone bad and her ill-fated attempt to get back on track – “Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy.” This is the theme for the majority of the album, with only slight hints of self-confidence and happier times appearing later on.
Title track Ultraviolence carries on the heartbreak of Cruel World. Despite the title and subject matter, it sounds woozy and trippy, at times also a little creepy. Soft, whisper like vocals narrate this tale of domestic abuse at the hands of Lana’s bad boy love. “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” – a line borrowed from the 1962 hit for The Crystals – tells of her unwavering devotion to this guy despite the pain she suffers. Heart-breaking and provocative, an unfortunate story against a backdrop of cool ethereal sounds.
Shades of Cool stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. A ghostly ballad lamenting her on-going relationship struggles – “I can’t help him” she sings as she resigns herself to the fact that her Chevy driving bad boy will always be a rebel. Tender vocals over building guitar, this would fit perfectly on any Tarantino or even Bond soundtrack. The song builds and builds backed by Auerbach’s bluesy guitar and heavy use of wah wah. This eventually takes over, resulting in a huge guitar solo, overwhelming Lana’s vocals, suggesting that she is overwhelmed by the guy in question.
The next track indicates a shift in tone and mood for Ultraviolence. Brooklyn Baby is a more upbeat affair and marks a transition from downtrodden girlfriend to an almost confident front woman. An ode to the hipsters of modern day Brooklyn, this retro love song is playful and perhaps a hint that our sad girl has a sense of humour. “Well my boyfriends in a band/he plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed” Del Rey sings as she pokes fun at those wannabe hipster chicks. “yea my boyfriend’s pretty cool/but he’s not as cool as me” is a complete change of theme with her taking the lead in this relationship.
West Coast is the lead single from this record. We are transported from hip Brooklyn to cool California with a sultry gravely vocal. Reminiscent of Stevie Nicks’ 1982 hit Edge of Seventeen not only in the beat and guitar but the chorus “ooh baby ooh baby I’m in love”. The tempo shifts back and forth, from the soft chorus to the sped up verses. A very worthy single, catchy, poppy and ideal for the summer.
Sad Girl follows, bringing us back to Lana’s ill-fated relationships just as we thought she was back on track. The swinging of emotions, both lyrically and musically, on Ultraviolence depicting the storm our heroine is living in. Not only has her bad boy broken her heart with physical abuse but it turns out that she’s the other woman. “Being a mistress on the side/it might not appeal to fools like you” is sung with a hint of nonchalance, as if like the rest of us, she’s tired of singing the same old song. This is definitely an album track, unimpressive and a bit dull. Pretty when you cry is in the same vein as Sad Girl. A gloomy ballad, reiterating her faithfulness to the aforementioned bad boy. She sings with childlike vulnerability and croons “I’ll wait for you babe/that’s all I do babe.” Again a minor track with little impact.
Hurrah! Lana take’s the reins in Money, Power, Glory. She’s back and ups the tempo with this tale of gold-diggers and femme fatales. Her sweet vocals seem venomous and seething “You should run boy run”. It’s payback time and although a slow burner the chorus lifts us like a hymn – “Alleluia! I wanna take them for all that they got”. Her vocals take centre stage here, everything is stripped back and shows Lana off for what she is – a great singer.
The power trip continues with Fucked my way to the top. Del Rey is using her femininity as a weapon and at the same time having a dig at those critics that accused her of doing just that. Echoing vocals and solid beats give this song a trip hop feel. Lana is properly vitriolic “I’m a dragon, you’re a whore/don’t even know what you’re good for” and “mimicking me is a fucking bore to me”. This is a two finger salute to all those who doubted her as well as a comment on the fame hungry, casting couch culture of the industry.
Old Money is the penultimate track of the album. It’s instantly nostalgic and more in keeping with the vibe on Born To Die. There is no sign of Auerbach’s guitar leaving only strings and soft, almost spoken lyrics. This could be a song from the 50s or 60s and indeed it harks back to old Hollywood – “red racing cars, sunset and vine”. This is the Lana we know and love and she sounds right at home.
Our last listen is to the Other Woman. A vintage jazz ballad and old standard, originally sung by Nina Simone in 1959. We know Lana isn’t afraid to tackle a cover version from her heart wrenching version of Blue Velvet and she truly makes the Other Woman her own. A fitting end to her theme of ill-fated romance and damaged women. As she sings, her voice is full of emotion, sounding almost tearful “The other woman will always cry herself to sleep/the other woman will never have his love to keep”. This sounds like a depressing note to end an album on, but it wraps Ultraviolence up nicely and demonstrates Lana Del Rey’s beautiful vocal style and appreciation for the era and original artist.
All in all Ultraviolence is a great album, showing Del Rey’s progression from hipster upstart to soulful and emotional chanteuse. Musically interesting, all be it samey, it is a body of work she can be proud of and the perfect lazy summer album of 2014.