Lana Del Rey
51:40 min • Interscope, Polydor UK • June 13, 2014
John Preston reviews
Born to Die was an ultimately deceitful album as it was based on the promise that was ‘Video Games’. Heard only 6 months before the album debuted and accompanied by the not quite equally – but still utter beguiling – ‘Blue Jeans’, these were surely a tantalising taste of what was to come. Thoroughly retrofit, other-worldly and desolate songs with melodies that made you stop what you were doing. Born to Die was still a good album but is not the one that many craved or expected and it divided opinion sharply. It featured Del Rey rapping about highly-caffeinated fizzy drinks, repetitive hip-hop sounds and samples with a large count of songs that could have just as easily been Britney/Gaga/Rihanna. This was dominated by a production style that can best be described as bombastic and cynical. It also sold in excess of 7 million copies and it can safely be presumed that with this came a clout that allowed Del Rey and her choice of producers to finally deliver on that initial promise – as least partially. Ultraviolence is the sound of an artist, I suspect, being freed up to fulfil their own creative desires and that sound is both very different from what came before and also very much the same.
‘Cruel World’ opens the album in a grandiose and gloating fashion- at nearly 7 minutes long it declares its own riskiness loudly and with an obvious pride. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has, along with Del Rey, decided the sonic template producing the majority of the album, which is fully represented here and is stuck to pretty much throughout. Out go the R&B beats, trip hop, the clattering metallic percussion and the sugared spoken-song rhymes to be replaced by live drums, guitars with serious intent and a dazed and strung out Del Rey yowling “you’re fucking crazy – you’re crazy for me”. Leading to her best melody, second only to ‘Video Games’, ‘Ultraviolence’ is a song that could have come at any point during her discography and would be considered one that encapsulates her ability to pull you close and watch the collision. Its controversy is ridiculous and highly theatrical but the beauty is undeniable. ‘Shades of Cool’ is, again, a gorgeous swooping waltz with a falsetto chorus and a line in haughty cattiness that confirms Del Rey’s refusal to play the feminist role in a way that has and will alienate many. The guitars deliriously shred the languid mood to pieces in the final minutes of the song and it’s her best attempt at a Bond theme thus far.
The initially deceptively empty and messy sounding ‘West Coast’ is in many ways Ultraviolence’s biggest triumph. As the first piece of music heard from the album it threw many with its refusal to stick to a steady time signature – slowing down dramatically in the chorus only to speed up again- and vocals that during the verses were tight and gulped. It wasn’t the Lana Del Rey we were used to hearing and quite possibly one we didn’t like, but repeat listens reveal a thrillingly compact and almost perversely catchy pop song which confirms that this time around, she isn’t interested in an easy win.
‘Brooklyn Baby’ is the album’s only concession to light. A track that twirls and revels in a 1960s, near Saint Etienne folk-pop confection which has a depth and warmth that isn’t evident at first listen – another slow burner in an album that has many. ‘Brooklyn Baby’ does however highlight a sticking point with Del Rey – not her ability as a performer, she sounds far more confident and poised on this album than the last, but her abilities as a song writer. It’s not clear whether the song is bemoaning current-day hipsters or an actual celebration of the beat movement of that time, either way the writing is hackneyed and clunky to the point where it seems to be intentional but then again, I suspect not.
Daddies, diamonds, death, drugs (lots and lots of drugs) and little red dresses have all been referred to by the time we reach the album’s half way point, but because of the exceptionally strong songs and performances they have not grated in the way that they may have done otherwise. The Lana Del Rey key-words remain, her stock phrases that have been there from the beginning but still, somehow, have allowed her to create new music without it becoming ludicrous. However, the aspect of the Lana Del Rey persona – the wronged woman, sad woman, loves her bad men woman – ultimately and inevitably becomes boring. This is most apparent with the baggy and lifeless combination of ‘Sad Girl’ and ‘Pretty When You Cry’ (those titles!) at the mid-point of the album. The venomous ‘Fucked My Way Up To The Top’ and almost brilliant ‘Money Power Glory’ which is let down only by a repetitive and not fully realised chorus, restores some of the energy but it never quite reaches the highs of its first half.
Ultraviolence has just about secured Lana Del Rey’s status as An Artist to be Taken Seriously, irritating to many maybe but difficult to deny or avoid given the force at which her vision here takes its form. It’s not an easy album on any level – sonically, lyrically or vocally – and the playfulness that littered Born to Die has all but evaporated to be replaced by a looser, insidious malaise and increasing desperation which only very occasionally is flushed out by a crystalline piano ballad (the very lovely ‘Old Money’) or a laughed-out-loud line. It’s hard to say whether the closing track, a cover version of Nina Simone’s ‘The Other Woman’, is a ridiculously on-the-nose piss-take on the Del Rey construction or the perfect finale for a pop star whose talent has been to locate something that has been dormant for some time: an ability to transcend cultural dictates and become an individual. Either way it doesn’t really matter, there is music here to daydream deeply to and when done, return to life which will never be as dangerous, sick and romantic as the world that Del Rey has created here. That is indeed, quite a talent.
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