The New Yorker treads a thin line between between self-aware irony and tragically conforming to type on album number two
Like Morrissey, Lana Del Rey has mastered song titles that perpetuate her reputation with a knowing wink. The tracklisting of her second official album could form her manifesto: ‘Sad Girl’, ‘Pretty When You Cry’, ‘Money Power Glory’, ‘Fucked My Way Up To The Top’. Rather than the mea culpa that Authenticity Bores would like it to be, the latter is a territorial, if mournful, bitch-slap: “I’m a dragon, you’re a whore/Don’t even know what you’re good for/Mimicking me’s a fucking bore… to me”, she glowers.
It’s hard to know who she means, especially because mimicking Lana Del Rey would be hard. On her 2012 official debut, ‘Born To Die’, she was an idea among icons. As she said recently, “[my persona] literally has nothing to do with me”. It’s either smart postmodern mythmaking or an equally smart get-out-of-jail-free card.
Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, however, ‘Ultraviolence’ attempts to define Del Rey’s musical identity. Most of these 11 songs are stately ballads that swap her old hip-hop affectations and hiccupping-baby vocals for languid desert rock. The pace is unwavering: her notably powerful voice reaches piercing highs before evaporating, like steam rising from hot coals, while Auerbach punctuates his reverby sandstorms with occasional guitar solos. Even though the silliness of ‘Born To Die’ was key to its appeal (how many syllables in “py-y-y-tho-o-on” again?) the classy ‘Ultraviolence’ sounds like a better capital-A album, putting Del Rey first in line to helm the next Bond theme.
Following the first album’s submissive “I’d die without you” pouting, ‘Ultraviolence’’s Chris Isaak-indebted lead single, ‘West Coast’ suggests Del Rey’s seeking independence: “I get this feeling like it all could happen/That’s why I’m leaving you, for the moment”, she sings, from a rare position of power. But it doesn’t last: elsewhere she’s in thrall to rote, druggy bad-boys who treat women like dirt.
Much of ‘Ultraviolence’ conforms to a feminine ideal forged in 1959, the year Nina Simone released ‘The Other Woman’ (about the mistress’ eternal solitude), which Del Rey covers here. Her 2014 equivalent, ‘Sad Girl’, sounds like an awkward supper-club seduction and concerns a besotted prostitute whose only power is vaguely threatened indiscretion. ‘Pretty When You Cry’’s ragged edges evoke early Cat Power, but without any of her searing anguish: Del Rey’s lover treats her terribly because she looks cute when she’s upset. She exalts a violent man on the title track, referencing The Crystals’ ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’. It’s harder still to listen knowing that Del Rey claims these situations are all true-to-life. 85% of domestic violence victims return to their abusers, submission is an ancient peccadillo, and there’s no accounting for taste. But she conjures them with surface-level sadness worn like a shade of eyeshadow, which swiftly wears thin if you have no time for one-dimensional cads.
‘Ultraviolence’ is a funny second album for the way Del Rey makes jokes at her own expense, inhabiting roles that critics have imagined for her based on the malleability of her early references. She’s a bohemian dimwit on ‘Brooklyn Baby’, and reaches a state of semi-religious ecstasy at the thought of the excellent ‘Money Power Glory”s titular attributes. The line between self-aware irony and tragically conforming to type is thin, though, her knowing winks getting stuck in a tangle of false eyelashes, and ultimately undermining what had the potential to be a powerful artistic statement.