Album Review: Lana Del Rey Convinces Us Again with Ultraviolence

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Since her mysterious debut in 2012, Lana Del Rey has always been the subject of feminist and popular scrutiny. For some reason, probably the best, it never really got to me. I’ve always been an avid LDR fan, and I’ve come to learn that her music has much more truth and meaning behind it than people think.

Del Rey’s latest work, the 11-track Ultraviolence, is a well-awaited response to her long built-up criticism. Any literature geek out there would notice the questionable titular reference to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (or even Kubrick’s controversial yet strikingly brilliant film adaptation in 1971). In a way, the record seems to carry on that legacy of controversy in a good direction, with violent themes and an almost ever-present glossy wail from the torture of loss, heartache, and defeat. Del Rey comes to accept the consequences of her past, and at the same time, find a treacherous yet placid state of rest and conclusiveness.

The record is classified as alternative, but is really jazz-drenched with unmistakable notes of rock at heart. The mixture of these components is new for Del Rey. Most of us are still accustomed to the overproduction of Born to Die, complete with pouty Lolita-esque runs and hip-hop EDM beats that have Kanye West written all over (moreover, she recently testified that she was no longer keen for that type of production). In fact, the new sound accommodates Del Rey’s smoky vocals even better. Her contralto vocal range can escalate to smooth, soaring wails and cries that unleash butterflies in your stomach, yet keep that undeniably cool, West Coast demeanor that makes the record so addictive as a whole.

The first track off the record is “Cruel World,” and it has an almost U2-like reverb, drowning in electric guitar howls that make it seem weirdly feel-good. For Del Rey’s standards, anything that makes a listener want to jump up and down (reminiscent of any Top-40 pop song including that sad remix of “Summertime Sadness”) is quite an accomplishment; she is a cinematic torch singer after all.

The song also has a different standpoint lyrically. I’d say to describe it in a spiritual way, “Cruel World” serves as a type of re-incarnation for the whole album and era to follow. It’s a reawakening with a 25-second “narco-swing” that sings of a dark time Del Rey experienced after the deep, murky depths of breakup: “Share my body and my soul with you/that’s all over now…Finally happy now that you’re gone/Put my little red party dress on/Everybody knows that I’m the best/I’m crazy!”

With the disoriented, broken figure Del Rey crafted in the first track, we move onto the titular track, “Ultraviolence.” It’s a catchy song, and more upbeat and smooth-sailing vocally. At the same time, it’s probably going to be fodder for the long-lasting feminist argument against Del Rey’s work, note the lyric: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Some even go to extremes by claiming that it romanticizes domestic violence, but in my eyes, it’s only a raw representation of Del Rey’s emotions. Romanticizing emotions would be even worse a crime if we’re talking about creative license and art. What would make Del Rey promote such a thing with no reason, anyway? She’s just as human as any other person.

“Shades of Cool,” the next track, is as cool as its title suggests, complete with wah-wah guitars, breathy vocals, and coos that bring a sort of James Bond feel to the table. Her cries are echoed and drenched in occasional string arrangements that give the song a psychedelic quality that is suddenly shattered by a gut-wrenching guitar solo that escalates with Del Rey’s voice in the background, slow and foreshadowing.

Del Rey continues with an ode to hippy culture and the beat era (another nod to literature geeks–she’s evidently one herself) in the bright tune “Brooklyn Baby.” Ironically, it is followed by the lead single “West Coast,” which balances out the East Coast she was singing about only moments before. “West Coast” is addictive as well, with a chorus that is slower than the escalating bridge, only showcasing her glossy vocals even better. There are groovy guitar riffs that point to the Beatles and notes that remind you of a young Stevie Nicks.

In “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry,” Del Rey reverts back to the more submissive female character, and at the same time develops the jazz aspect of the record. Both songs have moments of off-pitch notes that highlight the infatuating, sinister themes that haunt and disturb each song. At this point, everything is a blur, tainted and lethargic, perfectly “unlistenable,” as Del Rey once described her record to be.

In “Money Power Glory,” Del Rey is angry. The record’s second echoing guitar solo erupts as she screams, “Dope and diamonds/That’s all that I am.”  The listener realizes the disfigured person she’s become, the immersive character that nods to a psychotic Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire. The record is at its climax, emotionally bruising yet brilliant, just inches away from spiraling down to its finale.

“F*cked My Way Up to the Top” is a sardonic retort to her critics, dripping with icy sarcasm that makes you want to fist-pump for her wit. It sings about another female artist, more famous, who supposedly stole Del Rey’s style while they used to be friends (fingers point to Lady GaGa, former friend from her Brooklyn bar-singing days).

The next track “Old Money” definitely took a leaf out of The Great Gatsby, with a fully orchestrated chorus and endearing string progressions reminiscent of last year’s “Young and Beautiful.” It’s the odd one out and serves as a comic-relief of sorts.

Del Rey ends her narrative with a cover of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman”. It’s interesting that she chose this song, as it sings sadly of the female Del Rey has portrayed herself to be. The perfect one, the mistress, the party girl: “The other woman is perfect where her rival fails…But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep/ The other woman will never have his love to keep.” The cover is exquisitely delicate and the vocals sound like a typical Hollywood golden-era actress, a guise she ditched from the start of the record and oddly brought back, as if Del Rey was truly mocking us.

In eventuality, Lana Del Rey could be anyone, she could be you, she could be me, she could be the Other Woman. But instead of criticizing her and weighing her down with negativity for choosing to embody and take the voice of different individuals, we should applaud her. It doesn’t matter whether she has experienced what she sings about–it’s her own art, and she’s able to convince us, and even herself, pretty damn well.

Laiqa Shariff About Laiqa Shariff

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