Lana Del Rey’s cover of Blue Velvet from the ‘Paradise’ edition of her debut album was a turning point for the singer. As performed in David Lynch’s infamous film of the same name, it saw the singer slide further into the clichéd Lynchian nightmare that many had trapped her in.
‘Ultraviolence’, by comparison, feels far more authentic – like the glamorous yet downtrodden film-noir performer she was born to be. It’s in part from the low-fi production from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and in part due to her lyrics that touch on some torturous (and perhaps worrying) themes. Del Rey has always wanted to be taken seriously – ‘Ultraviolence’ is her manifesto.
Gone are the hip hop beats in favour of a West Coast sensibility: bluesy guitars and effortless cool drenched in sunset. It’s exemplified by woozy lead single West Coast and its moody changes of tempo, sounding like Chris Isaak sung by Anna Calvi. On Shades of Cool a blazing guitar solo cuts through the smoky haze, whilst much of Pretty When You Cry is based on evocatively reverbed guitar arpeggios, slowly building towards its own guitar solo conclusion.
It’s the perfect fit for Del Rey’s drawling, sepia-soaked vocal: nonchalant, almost despondent, like some vampy noir siren who’s given up on life. “I’m your jazz singer” she says on Ultraviolence, “and you’re my cult leader”. The chorus of that songs colours her voice with breathy, magical harmonies on the word “ultraviolence”, encapsulating the dreamy/nightmarish quality of her music.
That’s something that continues in her lyrics, whether based on a doomed love affair, fading beauty or her love affair with violence, suffering and death that permeates the whole album. Her debut ‘Born To Die’ seems positively tame by comparison. ‘Ultraviolence’ aches with tragedy. On the title track alone she purrs “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” (surely a reference to this trackby The Crystals), creating a haunting image of submission and fetish. Sad Girl sees her noting breathlessly “being a mistress on the side, it might not appeal to fools like you” before chanting “I’m a sad girl…I’m a bad girl” in a similarly submissive pose, continued in her cover of The Other Woman. The gorgeous Old Money, meanwhile, is an ode to lost youth as she laments “Will you still love me when I shine from words but not from beauty?” - perhaps a nod to her previous song Young And Beautiful from the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby – whilst on Money, Power, Glory she spits at her critics “Hallelujah, I wanna take you for all that you got” .
At times she does give in to cliché, most prominently on Brooklyn Baby that references Lou Reed, “feathers in my hair” and “my jazz collection’s rare”, though as a whole the song broods, almost disturbingly, on a relationship with an older man: “they say I’m too young to love you…I’m a Brooklyn baby”. Many listeners will also be drawn to Fucked My Way Up To The Top and its opening line “Life is awesome I confess, what I do I do best”. It’s typical Del Rey – the poppy, amusing and eye-catching title a thin veil for a tragic subject, here feminism (even if she herself has noted that “feminism is just not an interesting concept”). And if her frequent references to death may seem like part of an over-arching doomed femme fatale act, her recent interview in The Guardian paints a rather bleaker picture: “I wish I was dead already”. It’s clear that Del Rey is far from the pop construct many had pigeon-holed her as following her debut; on ‘Ultraviolence’ she is singing from the heart.
At its peak, ‘Ultraviolence’ doesn’t quite hit the sublime high of Video Games, but it captures an artist forever on the edge of a breakdown. It makes for a strangely beautiful listen that’s disturbing, provocative and sumptuous in all the right ways. But can someone please give her a hug?
* Money Power Glory
* Fucked My Way Up To The Top
* Old Money
Listen: ‘Ultraviolence’ is available now.