The Divine Comedy of Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence
In an interview maybe eight years ago, I saw Kanye West let loose one of his ludicrously self-aggrandizing statements and then -- seemingly, anyway -- briefly choke down laughter at the audacity of what he'd just said. I like to think, perhaps wishfully, that it was a glimpse of the man behind the curtain: Sure, he's got a gargantuan ego -- a necessity and an occupational hazard for a Bowie or Beyonce or any self-mythologizer who dreams that big -- but it's just a component of the character he dons like armor to square off against the world. (And yes, there have been plenty of moments over the years where it seems he's lost his sense of humor or started believing his own mythology due to flattery and/or autosuggestion, but at least his music has evolved a lot more than his bragging.)
I 'll bet that every button-pushing statement and ludicrous lyric Lana Del Rey lets loose makes her laugh the way Kanye was trying not to that day.
Because more than anything else, her elaborately constructed caricature of the bad-girl/thinking-man's-fuck is performance-art comedy, and to take seriously a persona that spouts lyrics like "My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola" or "Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn's my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend" is to chase the wrong tale. (A similar thought can be found in Luke Winkie's "Lana Del Rey Fandom Is Exactly the Same As Pro Wrestling Fandom.") That it's set to shimmeringly beautiful music twists the plot even further.
Her persona is unwaveringly on-message while evolving into a few new musical shapes on her third full-length, Ultraviolence (which feels more like her fourth, since the eight-song/33-minute Paradise EP appended to her 2012 Born to Die LP was one of the meatier "deluxe edition" retail-performance-enhancers in recent memory). Since the new album is just one stroke on the Del Rey canvas -- and since she has already inspired reams of Barthesian fartery and discourse about intercourse from Anais Ninnies and/or people who actually have master's degrees -- we'll limit the focus here to, you know, music.
Yes, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach produced eight of the main album's 11 tracks, and yes, he's put a slightly different spin on her sound. There's more guitar, less orchestration and less rapping (how many albums can you say that about?), and the sing-song melodies that were all over *Born to Die* are almost entirely gone. The sound is still lush and (editor: dock writer 10% for using this adjective) cinematic, but usually employs dense echo rather than orchestras to get there.
Like the inside jokes in Pixar films aimed at parents, the album contains Easter eggs for close listeners: guitars straight off of Roxy Music's Avalon LP on "West Coast," a hilariously wailing '80s hair-metal solo at the end of "Pretty When You Cry," even a waft of Pink Floyd on "Shades of Cool." Del Rey pumps her titillating falsetto to sky-scraping heights, but with a darker edge than before: embellished with high harmonies, it sometimes sounds like the more deranged moments from Portishead's Beth Gibbons. And although Auerbach packs some swaggering twang, a bigger dose of Morricone would have gone a long way.
The lyrics don't have as many did-she-really-just-say-thats as Born to Die or Paradise, but there's no shortage of gems: "Get a little bit of bourbon in you/ Get a little bit suburban," "Got your bible, got your gun/ And you like to party" ("Cruel World"); "My boyfriend's in a band, he plays guitars while I sing Lou Reed/ I've got feathers in my hair, I get high on hydroponic weed" ("Brooklyn Baby"). And tongues have been awag over the title of "Fucked My Way Up to the Top" since the tracklist was revealed.
The album closes with dripping irony: a cover of Jessie Mae Robinson's "The Other Woman" (recorded by Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and, er, Jeff Buckley), with Rey's voice distorted to sound like it's coming through a gramophone, or maybe a vintage TV. The moment could be more Mad Men only if she'd covered "I Enjoy Being a Girl": "The other woman finds time to manicure her nails/ The other woman is perfect where her rival fails ... But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep."
Ultraviolence may not win over legions of the unconverted, and it certainly won't transform many skeptics into believers. Auerbach's sonic retrofit makes the album seem more of a departure than it actually is. The main songwriting collaborators (Rick Nowells and Dan Heath) were on her previous two releases, and some intriguing collaborations ended up on the five bonus tracks -- to be released via Target and iTunes and overseas and whatnot -- which annoyingly were not made available on advance review copies: the promising-sounding "Guns and Roses" and "Florida Kilos" (the latter being the album's only songwriting collaboration with Auerbach, along with Harmony Korine), and "Black Beauty," which was helmed by Adele/Florence & the Machine producer Paul Epworth. She also recently contributed the comically Disneyist "Once Upon a Dream" to the Maleficent soundtrack, but it would have been completely incongruous here.
Del Rey's Born to Die/Paradise chapter made you wonder how much longer she could sustain the pose and sound; her canvas is smaller than Kanye's. With Ultraviolence she's worked up an alluring Lana.2, although next time a more dramatic makeover may be needed to prevent the faithful from calling for the check. But for now, she remains unique; her only enemy is stasis. She can say this and mean it: "If you don't get it then forget it/ Because I don't have to fucking explain it."
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