Ultraviolence is a concept album of sorts — a collection of faded, yellowed postcards (mostly) from the City of Angels that introduce us to a cast of desperate women. There are femme fatales and game dames, victims and predators, and even an aging socialite reflecting on her life. What brings them together, and makes the album cohesive and compulsively listenable, is the fact that they’re all on the road to oblivion. Some know it, some don’t. But the impending sense of doom pervades each and every song. As such, Lana’s sophomore set isn’t exactly what you’d call a feel-good record.
The change in direction (both musically and conceptually) raises the increasingly boring question of authenticity that seems to waft around the 27-year-old like cheap perfume. I like to think that songstress deconstructs her alter ego a little further with each track on Ultraviolence, but does it really matter if she has simply replaced one fiction with another? Lana is a magnificent storyteller and most authors write about what they know. If that old adage holds up, the Coachella headliner knows more than her fair share about despair, toxic relationships and regret.
She sings about all three on the emotionally-devastating title track, which dissects an abusive relationship with almost surgical precision. “He hit me but it felt like true love,” wails the 27-year-old over gorgeous strings. If you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics you could be mistaken for thinking you were listening to a gushing love song. It’s the perfect soundtrack to an as-yet unmade David Lynch movie.
That sense of blind devotion is also apparent on the album’s other buzz single. A jazz-tinged portrait of a woman in love with a drug addict, “Shades Of Cool” is one of Lana’s most audacious offerings. “He lives for love, he loves his drugs but he loves his baby too,” she sings operatically. It’s not until the end of the song that she admits: “I can’t help him, can’t make him better.” Not that she will stop trying. Our heroine is nothing if not a ride-or-die chick.
Lana explores the same theme on “Pretty When You Cry”, which is the Chris Isaak moment she has been working towards her whole career. “All these special times I spent with you my love, they don’t mean shit compared to your drugs,” she dictates over a soundscape that evokes neon lights and palm-tree lined streets. It’s a highlight on a uniformly impressive album.
When the gloomy diva isn’t courting junkies, she’s falling in/out of love with a clinically depressed dude. “Life is beautiful but you don’t have a clue. Sun and ocean blue, they’re magnificent but don’t make sense to you,” she laments over hazy guitars on “Black Beauty”. Hooking up with producer Dan Auerbach really was a masterstroke. If these tracks sound heavy, it’s because they are. But they’re also melodic and work as very twisted and sedate pop songs. There’s something about this cut in particular that reminds me of Alannah Myles‘ “Black Velvet” — only much, much sadder.
Speaking of misery, it’s hard not to be seduced by the ultimate Lana Del Rey song title. Instead of the playing the stoic girlfriend, “Sad Girl” positions Lana as a vampish mistress. She defiantly sings about being the joys of being a side-chick over bluesy guitars. In comparison to many of the songs on the LP, it’s relatively light-hearted. “I’m a sad girl, I’m a bad girl,” she mocks on the infectious chorus.
“Sad Girl” isn’t the only cut about mistresses. Much deeper and nuanced is Lana’s cover of “The Other Woman”, a jazz standard closely associated with Nina Simone. Only in the Fader cover girl’s hands, it’s a twisted torch song that channels Dusty Springfield. “The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume, the other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in every room,” she sings. But as fans of the classic tune know, there’s a very Lana twist. “The other woman will always cry herself to sleep, the other woman will never have his love to keep.” Of course, it gets even bleaker from there. She’s basically doomed to die alone. It’s bold to cover a Nina Simone standard but the queen of sadcore makes it her own.
The fate that awaits a bombshell in old-age clearly a topic that fascinates Lana (see The Great Gatsby soundtrack cut “Young & Beautiful” for starters), and she devotes a song to it on Ultraviolence. Perhaps the most complex cut on the album is “Old Money”. As morose as it is elegant, the selfie pioneer begins by painting a glamorous picture of old Hollywood (“red racing cars, Sunset and Vine”) before revealing that she’s now meandering through her twilight years alone. “Will you still love me when I shine from words but not from beauty?” she growls over sublime strings. It’s interesting that the “Summertime Sadness” hitmaker recently admitted to having little interest in feminism because voicing the fears and insecurities of marginalized women strikes me as a form of activism in its own right.
While much of the album sounds like it was recorded under the influence of heavy tranquilizers (I say that with love), there are a couple of moments when Lana takes control of her destiny and ups the tempo. “Money Power Glory” is something of a flashback to Born To Die. She’s an ambitious bad ass with an insatiable lust for material things. “You talk about God,” she sings at one point before admitting: “that’s not what this bitch wants.” It’s an early fan favorite probably because it’s the least passive song on the album. This woman has well and truly taken the reigns.
Equally strong (but perhaps less wise) is the vixen she sings about on already-controversial “Fucked My Way Up To The Top”. Any Lana song that begins with “life is awesome” is an oddity and this even proves to be a moderately up-tempo jam. “I fucked my way up to the top, this is my shot!” she exclaims over grinding guitars. It’s a biting thesis on the hunger for fame with beautifully descriptive lyrics. “Lay me down tonight in my linen and curls,” she purrs. You can almost smell the smoke from the cigarette she’s cradling between perfectly manicured fingers.
Another (comparatively) upbeat moment is Target/Japanese bonus track “Flipside”. It’s a driving mid-tempo pop/rock track that has been dressed up (down?) with quintessentially Lana lyrics like “are you gonna hurt me now or are you gonna hurt me later?” The song offers a glimpse of a woman on the verge of being dumped (“I already know what you got in store”) but there’s also a fierceness to her. She’s mad and hungry for conflict. More importantly there’s a beautiful sing-a-long chorus. The gem’s relegation to bonus track status is confounding given its quality and unique perspective.
The moody singer sounds more relaxed on “Is This Happiness”. She’s simply reflecting on her own path or lack thereof. “You’re a hard man to love and I’m a hard woman to keep track of,” she begins. You soon get the feeling that the broad taking stock of her life has a lot in common with Lana. She has clearly achieved some measure of success (“high up in the Hollywood hills”) but has no clue what it all means. The strings are beautiful and the imagery is dazzling. She never really comes to a conclusion, which is what makes the song real and moving.
Then there are the geographical songs. Lead single “West Coast” is more Californian than turning right on red light. “Down the West Coast I get this feeling like it all could happen” is the key lyric. Los Angeles, despite all its shortcomings, still facilitates the fulfillment of more American dreams than most cities, which makes the song as hopeful as it ominous.
While references to LA litter the album, it’s not her only destination. “Florida Kilos” is an ambitious (but ultimately unconvincing) tale of love and drug smuggling in Miami, while “Brooklyn Baby” is an ode to New York hipsters. This is one of my favorite tracks on Ultraviolence but I still can’t decide whether Lana is being earnest or sending up the beehive on the rooftop-cultivating assholes of Williamsburg. Either way, it works for me because the lyrics are equally fitting for either scenario (“my boyfriend’s in a band, he plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed. I got feathers in my hair, I get down to beat poetry”).
While the album is extremely consistent there are a couple of songs that don’t quite hit their mark like the above-mentioned “Florida Kilos”. Album opener “Cruel World” is a fairly pedestrian break-up anthem that doesn’t justify its six minute running time and “Guns And Roses” is a stone-cold dud that falls flatter than Axl Rose’s hair.
Speaking of the famed rocker, Lana is clearly obsessed with icons. Her short film Tropico starred Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley impersonators and she sings about the greats on “West Coast”. With Ultraviolence, she takes a big step towards becoming one in her own right — if she isn’t already.
Best Listened To: Cruising along Mulholland Drive late at night (or anywhere else that amplifies loneliness and isolation).
Possible Future Singles: “Money Power Glory” is perhaps the most accessible song on the LP but I’d be happy with something a little unexpected like “Old Money” or “Fucked My Way Up To The Top”. It’s not like radio is going to be a major factor in any case.
Idolator Score: 4.5/5
— Mike Wass