A couple of years ago, during a less-than-flattering moment in Lana Del Rey’s emerging career, I wrote an article explaining why we shouldn’t write her off just yet. Ultraviolence is why.
Since Born To Die was released (to mixed reviews but impressive sales—the music fans have the final word, after all), Del Rey has been essentially doing two things. First, she’s been giving the world time to get used to her caustic-diva, seemingly anti-feminist, glutton-for-abuse persona, and allowing that persona to carve out a niche that literally no one else in the music world currently occupies. Second, she’s been figuring out for herself how she wanted to move forward with her career. Indeed, Ultraviolence is the record that almost didn’t get made, because between the haters, the song leaks and a nagging, unknown illness that was plaguing her, Del Rey seemed uncertain whether she wanted to continue.
But in the end, the record did get made. And the results are pretty stellar.
With this record, Lana Del Rey has smartly retained the elements of her style that set her apart from the pack, while letting some of the less mature elements fall by the wayside. Most notably, Ultraviolence has shed the slow-burn hip-hop vibe of Del Rey’s previous work in favor of a more retro (or should we say, timeless) blend of 60s pop and torch-singer jazz. No doubt we have the production expertise of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach to thank for this, at least in part—and indeed, his lo-fi influence can be heard all across the record. The result is that Del Rey comes across as more mature and timeless in her sound and presentation. She’s no longer a young 20-something trying to be a diva; she is a diva, and you believe her.
Meanwhile, the fatalistic tendencies that dominate Del Rey’s songs are still present in full force. It still takes some getting used to, hearing her liquid, smoky voice lilt over lines like “I f**ked my way up to the top” and “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” but it’s nothing if not memorable. With songs like “Cruel World,” “Sad Girl,” “Pretty When You Cry,” “The Other Woman” and the disturbing title track, she’s further solidifying her image as the self-aware dysfunctional femme fatale who knows she’s screwed up (and over) but is unflinchingly honest about it, and sadly resigned to it.
While Lana Del Rey is something of a created character, as is often the case with created personas, it’s getting more difficult to tell where Lana Del Rey ends and Lizzie Grant begins. In recent interviews, she’s talked about her bouts of depression and illness, and in a recent interview with The Guardian, she admitted idolizing members of the “27 club”—young artists who died at age 27—and wishing she was dead already. While it might be doubtful that the string of abusive relationships she refers to in her music is completely autobiographical, the sadness and regret that pervades the tunes comes across as disarmingly honest.
Regardless of what is and is not factual about her songs, there’s no escaping the fact that Ultraviolence itself is a well-produced piece of art from an artist who is clearly coming into her own. How much of her personal life is weaving its way into these tunes, and the overall attitude of the record—these are still a matter of conjecture. But some of the best art comes from pain, and in this case, the end product is definitely worthy of respect. I, for one, am glad we didn’t write Lana Del Rey off. And indeed, we still shouldn’t.