Negative reviews are really fun to write. It isn’t often when someone with low status (yours truly) is free to draw a little blood from those with high status (a popular artist or band) and still retain an air of dignity. After all, the stakes are ridiculously low for the writer. I might anger some fans and suffer a beating on social media. But the net effect on my personal life is close to zero. Like anyone who regularly evaluates the work of famous entertainers, I can be gleefully cavalier (if not sloppy) with my takedowns. Perhaps even more so when I know my words will be widely read. Take, for example, my reviews of Lana Del Rey’s breakthrough album Born to Die and her subsequent EP Paradise. Did my tone have to be so caustic and patronizing to communicate my dislike for both releases? Probably not. Should I have shown Del Rey more generosity, since she was still an inexperienced artist at the time? Yes, of course. Do I feel like a complete idiot for dismissing her outright, now that I find myself writing a glowing review of her new record Ultraviolence? Boy, do I ever.
To paraphrase an Elvis album title, millions and millions of Lana Del Rey fans can’t be wrong. Say what you will about Born to Die, which made her the object of swooning affection and a true cultural phenomenon. (I continue to despise it.) But Del Rey has proved to be a singular figure on the pop landscape, our most intriguing since Lady Gaga sprung fully formed from the clubs last decade. Both artists proudly flout “authenticity,” the central tenet of rockist dogma, though in different ways. Where Gaga wears her falsehood like haute couture armor, Del Rey takes her cues from a young Robert Zimmerman. Elizabeth Grant fashioned a brand new persona – equal parts Beverly Hills and Skid Row – and has yet to break character. Tales of homelessness and biker gangs and death wishes and abusive gurus all blur into a smoky haze. Lana Del Rey’s façade remains confounding and, also, utterly compelling.
Ultraviolence, a collection of mid-century ballads spiked with blues-rock,is a stunning accomplishment. Its eleven songs whimper and howl, soothe and taunt, hypnotize and thrill. Born to Die’s worst features – basically anything that labored to make it sound “current” – have been thrown into the ash heap. Del Rey and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (the album’s main producer) complete the logical trajectory laid out by “Video Games,” “Ride,” and “Young and Beautiful” and mercifully ignore everything in between. “Video Games” endures as Del Rey’s signature tune, but “Young and Beautiful” marks her creative inflection point. That song, with its lavish orchestral execution and ironically naïve viewpoint, might as well be Ultraviolence’s overture.
Lana Del Rey has long been obsessed with icons, especially Hollywood’s. Her short film Tropico included representations of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Elvis (along with Mary, Eve, Adam and Jesus) in its tortured, Edenic opening tableau. But Del Rey is no longer satisfied with merely nodding at cinema in her music. She instead presents Ultraviolence as a soundtrack to a Douglas Sirk melodrama, scored by Ennio Morricone (minus the trumpets). Free to widen her lyrical scope beyond the stuff of schlock art, Del Rey’s references are somewhat less obvious and now include Anthony Burgess, Al Jolson, the Crystals, Charles Manson, Marianne Faithfull, Ernest Hemingway, the Who, and the Book of Revelation. Good news for those of us who like to feel smart while listening to pop music.
Try as you might, it’s hard not to be swept away by Ultraviolence’s gorgeous 70 mm sonic vistas. Unlike Born to Die, the album doesn’t contain a single pedestrian song. At worst, they’re just pretty good (“Sad Girl,” “Pretty When You Cry,” “The Other Woman”). At best, they can be superlative (“West Coast,” “Ultraviolence,” “Brooklyn Baby”). The album’s wonderful opener “Cruel World” sets the outline for the rest of Del Rey’s new material: it’s ethereal, sprawling, and unhurried. Unadorned verses crescendo into massive, exultant choruses. Reverb is often applied to her vocals, sometimes a bit too liberally. Del Rey sings mostly in her middle range, and never in the cloying babyish coo that marred much of Born to Die. When she reaches into her upper register, it is as arresting as ever, a reminder of what made “Video Games” so intoxicating.
Given Ultraviolence’s thematic and musical unity, a heavy burden is placed on the little moments that keep it from becoming a fifty-one-minute slog. This is how the album (and Auerbach’s production) succeeds the most. A simple guitar embellishment on “Brooklyn Baby,” or the slowed-down chorus on “West Coast,” might seem like minor touches on their own. But Ultraviolence brims with such rich and satisfying details, which can pass without notice if you’re not paying close attention.
Ultraviolence doesn’t arrive out of a void. Lana Del Rey has been honing her craft in the public eye, with every misstep ruthlessly pilloried by people like me. Despite the onslaught, she’s emerged triumphant. Del Rey takes the well-deserved opportunity to strike back at her detractors on “Brooklyn Baby” and “Money Power Glory” (maybe my two favorite songs of the bunch). A great album, however, is the best revenge. A-