After the enormous success of her 2012 breakthrough album, Born To Die, Lana Del Rey dismissed the idea of recording another. “I’ve already said everything I wanted to say,” she declared of her celebrated second album, which sold 7 million copies. Yet somehow, Lana was persuaded back into the studio. And thank God for that. Cue the release of Ultraviolence, the equally dark and sensual continuation of Born To Die. This is a glittering indie-pop album that moves Del Rey away from the hip-hop tropes of her previous work to a heavier, more rock-inspired sound.
As on her previous album, Del Rey deals with many of the major themes of a reckless Hollywood lifestyle: sex, money, drugs, death. This lends a morbid glamour to the album, which is enhanced by the inclusion of a new producer, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. The pair have said that they were going for “real narco swing”. Whatever that means, I feel that they have succeeded.
The album’s title track builds from a minimalist verse to a floating, bass-heavy chorus over which Lana sighs the word “ultraviolence” sweetly, like a child. The song’s masochistic theme is expressed beautifully in the lines:
I can hear sirens, sirens He hit me and it felt like a kiss I can hear violins, violins Give me all of that ultraviolence.
Lana compares the pleasure she receives from being hit to the pleasure she receives from hearing music and, through the rhyming of violins and violence, aligns the danger of the abuse to the romantic thrill (my apologies – I study English and got a bit excited).
Shades Of Cool may be the musical masterpiece of the album. Its swelling, warbling chorus feels like sinking into a cold pool on a hot day thanks to the wavering guitar, strings, and spacy bass undertone. The song grows turbulent towards the middle with a ripping guitar solo (played by the brilliant Dan Auerbach) that builds until the serene return to the final chorus.
West Coast has a haunting and woozy chorus, which would make it a good (though fairly downbeat) summer song. Musically, it’s a dark track that introduces a grunge influence to the album. Lana’s music executives may have thought that West Coast was too experimental to be released as the lead single, perhaps explaining why a radio mix of the song was released instead. This is a shame because the album version is a lot more interesting. Also, I’ll give a prize to anyone who notices the obscure melodic nod to The Beatles in this song (hint: listen to Things We Said Today off of A Hard Day’s Night).
Brooklyn Baby is wonderfully catchy and the reverb on Lana’s voice gives the chorus an ethereal and teasing sound. Playing the Lolita card again, Lana tries to convince her older beau that she is mature enough for him by cooing, “I get down to beat poetry / And my jazz collection’s rare”. As is often the case with Del Rey’s lyrics, it’s hard to tell whether she is being genuine or mocking the sentiments expressed in her songs.
Either way, the album has a dark, cinematic aesthetic that holds it together with wonderful symmetry. Auerbach’s production is faultless. It’s polish and intoxicating glamour fit perfectly with Lana’s sense of decadence and drama.
What the album does not necessarily have is immediate radio appeal. All of the singles released are fantastic songs, but they are also broody and slow-paced. As far as album pacing goes, it is strange that all four of the singles are placed one after the other on the first half of the album. This makes the second side slightly less engaging, though the songs there are also catchy with some beautiful moments, such as Lana’s deep contralto on Old Money or her 40s-style warbling on The Other Woman.
Although perhaps not quite as spellbinding as Born To Die, Ultraviolence definitely delivers a strong dose of all of Lana’s most captivating features with large, lustrous production sounds, gorgeous vocals, soaring melodies, and the alluring melodrama that comes with the figure that is Lana Del Rey.