Everyone used to be really mad at Lana Del Rey. She was a hack, a fraud, a blank-eyed Frankenstein born out of the imagination of a failed New York singer-songwriter once named Lizzy Grant. Or maybe she was created by an ace team of marketers led by Grant’s father, depending on which equally depressing creation myth you believed.
Then “Born to Die,” her 2012 major-label debut, moved 7 million copies worldwide (outselling Beyonce’s latest album twice over, you might have read). Del Rey had a few hit singles, and the outrage machine happily moved on to Miley Cyrus.
“Ultraviolence” is her second major-label full-length album — her first since becoming America’s Saddest Pop Star — and Del Rey has never sounded better in her brief life. “Born to Die” was scattered, rambling and occasionally off-message, but “Ultraviolence” offers the first glimpse of her now fully realized id: Del Rey is beautiful, jaded and doomed, in love with some American past that has never existed. She’s the star of her own airless psychodrama, enraptured by death, happily subservient to a parade of loser boyfriends. She’s a lounge singer on the hipster Titanic.
“Ultraviolence” is an album of good and great songs, presented by a tedious character. It’s not just retro, it’s calculatedly, disturbingly retrograde, as if someone decided that vacant female subservience was somehow underrepresented in the Top 40.
It’s even more disturbing that they were apparently right. For teenage girls weary of sound-alike, electro-obsessed female pop stars produced and packaged by men, Del Rey offers an injection of faded, old-timey glamour. She feels new, although her persona — suicidal doormat with a bad-boy fetish — would have seemed dated in an Edith Wharton novel. Next to Del Rey, Selena Gomez is Gloria Steinem chairing a National Organization for Women meeting.
The album’s title track interpolates the infamous ’60s girl-group single “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” It’s fuzzy and echoey and slight; that provocation is its only reason to exist. Del Rey doesn’t have much to say about relationship violence, except she’d like more of it. (“Give me all of that ultraviolence.”) She wants to be a provocateur, but too often, she settles for being a tease.
Co-producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys puts meat on the bones of songs that often feel like little more than drowsily repeated phrases. If “Born to Die” was a collage of trip-hop, rap and pop that never really cohered, “Ultraviolence” has the opposite problem: Virtually every track is gauzy, downtempo and slow (“narco swing,” according to Del Rey and Auerbach). It’s less anthemic and more reverby than its predecessor, and it’s beholden to a different kind of nostalgia — to Sunset Strip classic rock, surf rock and a strange, beautiful hybrid of ’50s western movie soundtracks and torch pop. Its melodies are haunting; its ballads toggle between minimalist and baroque, sometimes in the same song. It’s a triumph of aesthetics over emotions, as it was meant to be. It rewards repeat listenings, as rock critics like to say, although not close ones.
One of the best tracks, “Old Money,” is the kind of song Del Rey was invented to sing. It’s a seductive, (Taylor) Swiftian fantasy about the young rich that’s so vivid, you can practically smell the saltwater off the deck of the yacht. A direct descendant of Del Rey’s fantastic early single “Video Games” and her later hit “Young and Beautiful,” it’s one of the few tracks that doesn’t wrap its fever dreams around toxic notions of femininity and love.
Other songs are almost comically on the nose: “Sad Girl” is one of two songs about a patient mistress. There’s also a cover of Nina Simone’s classic “The Other Woman,” surely destined for some not-yet-conceived Tarantino spaghetti western. The boyfriend in “Pretty When You Cry” abandons Del Rey in favor of his drug addiction, and he still manages to seem like the most sensible person here.
The drubbing that Lana-as-meme took circa 2011-2012 clearly still stings. Gone is the eternally game, ride-or-die Del Rey of her debut, along with almost all of the hip-hop bravado that went with it. Future pop historians will one day argue about how much of Del Rey’s persona is satire, but this time around, the fables she’s selling are more noxious and dark, delivered with less of a wink.
“They judge me like a picture book / By the colors, like they forgot to read,” she coos on the breathy, oddly gentle shoegaze ballad “Brooklyn Baby,” the only song on which she possibly breaks character (“If you don’t get it / Then forget it”).
“F----- My Way Up to the Top” is a nifty bit of score-settling (“I am a dragon, you’re a whore / Don’t even know what you’re good for”) reportedly aimed at Lady Gaga, her onetime downtown rival. Like Del Rey, Gaga is a singer-songwriter who didn’t have any commercial luck until she reinvented herself as an archetype, becoming worshiped and reviled in the process. She would probably never write a song about Lana Del Rey.
Stewart is a freelance writer.