Album Review: Lana Del Rey—”Ultraviolence”

Lana Del Rey

By James Li

F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “there are no second acts in American lives,” but it seems odd coming from him. What could be more American than second chances? Look no further than Jay Gatsby, the titular protagonist of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who escapes his past by changing his name and moving to the glamour and excess of New York City. It’s a classic American story that still resonates today, from Don Draper on Mad Men to self-mythologizing pop singer Lana Del Rey. It’s no coincidence that Del Rey contributed “Young and Beautiful” to the soundtrack for the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

You may know Lana Del Rey as one of the most polarizing figures in pop music today. Her debut single “Video Games” became a viral sensation. With her “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” looks and hip hop influenced baroque pop sound, Del Rey was poised to be the next big thing. But her past caught up to her: Hipster Runoff revealed that Del Rey had previously released an album under her real name, Lizzy Grant. Far from being a gangsta Nancy Sinatra, she was actually the daughter of a multimillionaire with major label backing. After a botched performance on Saturday Night Live, critics began to jump off the Lana Del Rey bandwagon before she even released her debut, Born to Die. Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz even compared the album to a “faked orgasm.”

Love her or hate her, it’s strange that most of the Lana Del Rey debate pertains to authenticity rather than her music. After all, many musicians, even your favourites, are Jay Gatsbys. Robert Zimmerman came from a middle-class Jewish family in Minnesota, but he became Bob Dylan when he moved to New York, spinning tall tales about growing up in the circus and hopping freight trains. David Jones became David Bowie, and would later adopt many other personas: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. J. R. Cash changed his name to “Johnny” at his producer’s suggestion and wore all black to craft a rebellious outlaw image. So why criticize Lizzy Grant for becoming Lana Del Rey? Her commercial success and devoted fan base suggests that some people want their gangsta Nancy Sinatra, authenticity be damned.

But authenticity aside, Born to Die was polarizing for critics and music fans alike. Consider me a hater: it was too weighed down by lyrical clichés and syrupy arrangements to live up to the potential displayed on “Video Games.” Admittedly, I did not have high hopes for Ultraviolence. The album’s title, taken from Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, hints that Del Rey is entering darker territory. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach also has production credits on Ultraviolence. A collaboration between Auerbach and Del Rey sounds odd on paper, but actually works on record.

Ultraviolence, like Born to Die, hinges on strong singles. The album’s lead single, “West Coast,” evokes a sunny Californian beach. It’s driven by surf rock guitars and a swooning chorus that recalls Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” The languid “Brooklyn Baby” is the highlight of the album, a possible homage to Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby.” Del Rey name-checks Reed in the chorus, and the lyrics deliver a jab at New York hipsters, but I’m not sure whether it’s aimed at the Urban Outfitters crowd that loves her music or people like me who try to pick it apart.

But unlike Born to Die, the deeper cuts on Ultraviolence aren’t as flat, as Lana Del Rey reins in the glaring weaknesses of the debut album. Del Rey used to try to sing lower than her voice could reach on Born to Die and her infamous SNL performance, but her vocals are airier on Ultraviolence, which plays to her strengths. She’s less Nancy Sinatra and more Beach House’s Victoria Legrand or Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, a change that I welcome. The clunky hip hop beats and half-baked attempts at rapping that marred Born to Die are gone too (but the horrible spoken word outro on Ultraviolence’s title track is cutting it close). The cinematic “Old Money” comes closest to her style on Born to Die, complete with swelling strings lifted from Nino Rota’s theme to Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but it doesn’t sound overstuffed.

Del Rey also leans on the same lyrical tropes that she used on Born to Die. Few of the men or women depicted in her lyrics come off as sympathetic. On Ultraviolence’s title track, she sings “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” in the chorus, but refers to her abuser as her “cult leader” in the outro. “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” is as self-explanatory as a Lana Del Rey song gets (and actually isn’t as bad as the title makes it sound), but it doesn’t seem like Del Rey is happy there. On “Sad Girl,” she portrays herself as a mistress, a decision that might not appeal to “fools like you,” before she admits that being a lover on the side makes her sad.

Some people, including Lindsay Zoladz and Lorde, raise good points about problematic aspects in Del Rey’s lyrics. Del Rey explained herself that she didn’t find feminism to be an “interesting concept.” Listeners can decide for themselves whether Del Rey’s lyrics are sexist. In my opinion, she’s more Daisy Buchanan than Jay Gatsby; more beautiful little fool, in Fitzgerald’s words, than femme fatale. Del Rey comes off as jaded, materialistic, and desperate in her lyrics — think Betty Draper or Joan Harris on Mad Men. But if Lana Del Rey is so inauthentic, then we can accept that her lyrics are part of a persona, as unlikable as that persona may be. Sexist or not, Del Rey’s lyrics on Ultraviolence are quite often too shallow and melodramatic to be truly moving.

Ultraviolence is also bookended by some fairly weak tracks. The opener “Cruel World” stretches out to nearly seven minutes without enough good musical ideas backing it up, running the risk of losing the listener’s interest before the album even starts. Del Rey closes the album with a cover of “The Other Woman,” a standard made famous by Nina Simone. It fits her style, but Del Rey’s reading of the song is lifeless in comparison to Simone’s. The album would have ended on a much stronger note if it closed with “Black Beauty,” one of Del Rey’s best songs unfortunately relegated to a bonus track on Ultraviolence.

People who enjoyed Born to Die might be disappointed to hear that Ultraviolence is a more subdued follow-up to her debut. People who didn’t enjoy Born to Die might find that Del Rey is still as inauthentic and melodramatic than ever. But for all Ultraviolence’s flaws, I didn’t believe that the same person who sounded like a drunk karaoke singer on Saturday Night Live could come through with such a solid album. Lana Del Rey proved me and Fitzgerald wrong: she’s entered the second act of her musical life with Ultraviolence, and it has me anticipating act three. (Interscope)

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