Lana Del Rey is a singer unstuck in time. She feels at home no matter what era she’s emulating. She can rock an EDM remix just as easily as a hip-hop beat. She sounds just as indebted to today’s post-Aaliyah atmospheric R&B as she is to the crooners and jazz singers of the 40’s. She is an avatar of both rural America and Disney princesses.
This maneuverability can be a weakness; when Lana Del Rey first broke through with nothing but her voice and her cool, she was attacked as being a vapid capsule of hipster pretensions, an aural Instagram filter. But with Ultraviolence, her sophomore album, Lana renders all her past criticisms moot as she delivers the finest work of her career.
Lana’s success doesn’t have to do with changing her image, but deepening it. Ultraviolence finds its creator plumbing American myth to find the perfect balance between Hollywood glamour and blue collar Americana. A classic story about a good girl gone bad, Ultraviolence follows Lana as she abandons her suburban life and chases adventure, accepting the riches, glamour, and pain that can come with it.
The modest girl diving into the fast life has its seeds in American culture. Think showbiz classics like Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve or Laura Palmer, from David Lynch’s surreal hit TV show Twin Peaks. But Ultraviolence feels more hip-hop than anything else. Lana’s feminized version of Scarface plays right into the ambitious Mafioso crime stories of gangsta rap, and song titles like “Money, Power, Glory” would sound perfect on a Jay Z album.
Lana is able to pull these homages off thanks to some great writing and that sepia-colored voice. Even if she had nothing else, there would still be the voice. It’s remarkable in its ability to convey so many feelings at once. Both adolescent and adult, melancholy and sexual, strong and passive, Lana’s singing carries the album. She can stretch it out like a jazz singer on “Shades Of Cool” and “The Other Woman” or keep it barely above a whisper on “Sad Girl” and “Cruel World.” But it’s the other aspects that draw you into her world: the stutter on “Money, Power, Glory” or the screech of “Fucked My Way Up To The Top.” She’s able to capture immense emotions with her restrained singing. Lines like “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” on “Ultraviolence” revel in its provocation.
“Brooklyn Baby” has a knowing wink of satire, but not enough to limit the impact of “my boyfriend’s pretty cool, but he’s not as cool as me.” It helps that she now has an impressive sound backing her. Lana linked up with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach to provide ambitious orchestration around her and the results are fantastic. “Shades Of Cool” builds up to a stinging guitar solo while lead single “West Coast” warbles psychedelically until it breaks down in the bridge. These are great set pieces that create a stage for Lana without taking away from the main show.
Ultraviolence is an impressive piece of work. It is a fulfillment of the idea of Lana Del Rey and proof that there are still second chances in today’s pop culture. Sometimes artists need to grow to be who we want them to be.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Ultraviolence on Amazon.