Unlike Lana Del Rey’s albums before, Born To Die and the Paradise EP, both of which consist of polished pop with a darker baroque and hip-hop edge, Ultraviolence strips back to the basics of music, using gritty instrumentals and a ‘live’ feel to the songs throughout it. Where Born To Die was maudlin with a touch of Lana’s self-proclaimed ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ flair, Ultraviolence is a melancholic dream where even her brighter songs evade the typical pop quality and veer into something much darker yet more touching.
The album kicks off with the rollercoaster of a song Cruel World, a dizzying track that shifts with her mood from the calm verses to the raging choruses, all deftly timed with a thumping rhythm that paces the six minute or so track perfectly. Lana’s strong suit in Cruel World – and Ultraviolence itself – is the very real emotion she pushes into each song, particularly the opening track. Ranging from softly spoken despair to the taunting, babyish ‘Lolita’ style of vocals to barely controlled anger, Lana nails each of the emotions beautifully, conveying a woman who, as she puts it herself, is “fucking crazy”. The rich guitars add that kick of Americana, much like Ride from the Paradise EP but grimier. It’s a heavy slammer of a track but the perfect opening to her finest album, demonstrating the emotive vocals and heartfelt music to come.
Lana seems to be all about character throughout the album as she shifts from a woman gone “crazy” to beaten down jazz singer, held under the spell of her “cult leader” named ‘Jim’. Naturally, the song has had some controversy, accused of glamorising domestic abuse due to the loving nature of the song aimed towards a man who “hurt [her]”, yet I personally don’t believe that to be her intention – instead she is drawing on her own experiences with an ‘underground cult’. When it comes to the song, her vocals are admirable, as she once again manages to put her feelings into her voice and convey them perfectly to the listener, this time with the clever use of her distant and miserable vocals, the tearful pre-choruses and the slightly off-balanced way she sings of his “ultraviolence” throughout the chorus. It’s a difficult song to listen to, knowing the meanings behind what she says, but her pretty lines of “he used to call me DN, that stood for deadly nightshade” and “crying tears of gold like lemonade” show Lana’s prowess for imagery rather than blatancy. All of this, played under the steady beat of the drums which echo Cruel World and the shaking violins, create a touching song of terrible dedication, though the topic itself is a little too much for easy-listening.
Lana takes a slightly more experimental wander with Shades of Cool, opening the track with tentative guitars and her delicate voice, a musical interpretation of the way she tiptoes around her “baby”- a difficult man with an “unbreakable” heart. The carefulness of the song soon shifts to a wailing chorus of anguish and free-roaming vocals; it comes across as more of a demonstration of Lana’s vocal range yet it works. The highlight of the song is the bridge, a free-for-all for the guitars that drench her singing and completely shatter the gentleness of the beginning – a shift from the overly produced Born To Die and allowing the pure music to take a stand. Shades of Cool is an excellent showcase of Lana’s passion for the music.
Following Shades of Cool is the tribute to Lana’s place of birth, Brooklyn Baby, a satirical look at the Brooklyn scene. Where the first three songs are ice-cold tales of woe, Brooklyn Baby serves as a warmer track, the upbeat guitar and Lana’s cheerful lines of how she “can play almost anything” from her rare jazz collection shifting from dark to light. The lyrics may be narcissistic – and comically so – but they are charming in their own right, bringing the pop flair from Born To Die and even Aka Lizzy Grant but with pleasant guitars and a swaying beat perfect for the girl who “get[s] down to beat poetry”. Lana once again uses this song to showcase her unbeatable, soaring vocals – particularly in her pre-chourses with her lines of “I’m free” – expressing more than just a simple brag about how her boyfriend isn’t as cool as her. Still, the song works in it’s own self-absorbed way, and is undeniably one of her most breezy songs yet.
Lana brings us straight back to the kicking drums and gloomy guitars with West Coast, her restricted, too-cool vocals returning from their warm place in this steely track. Of course the best part of this song, as I seem to be fond of with all of her songs, are the music shifts, Lana’s verses going from quick-paced, breathless gasps of the West Coast to the dreamy choruses that will have you swaying in time as she sings, the clever transition using The Beatles’ And I Love Her sample, a small dedication to a great band Lana surely admires. It’s a brilliant song to feel lost in, particularly with the live feel of her lo-fi vocals and her “mic check one two” before the second verse, showing it’s not just a song but instead pure music.
Lana ramps up the heat with Sad Girl, seductive tale of the “mistress on the side” who has much admiration for the man who “walks with fame”, yet she still feels she is a “sad girl” ultimately for not having him as her own. It shows perfectly the glamorised image of the ‘other woman’ and how they are the “money on the side”, yet Lana cracks the “bad girl” image just slightly with the wretched tone that comes and goes throughout the song, though it’s difficult to feel pity for the woman she portrays. Whether based on real experiences or just a fun song, Lana’s controlled, lush vocals are brilliant and she knows precisely how to turn up the sex appeal within a mostly gloomy album.
One of the most emotionally driven songs on Ultraviolence is Pretty When You Cry, a completely lo-fi, one take song that keeps all of the imperfections to Lana’s singing – and uses them to bring on the heartbreak in her listeners. Lana’s shaky, unstable praises for “[her] love” clearly exhibit a distraught woman who, much like in Ultraviolence, is admired when she’s hurting. Pretty When You Cry is definitely powerful, with the fragile verses and powerful bridge that melts into a howling lament of how her tears make her beautiful, the guitars once again expressing her emotion much like in Shades of Cool. This track is a tearjerker but one of Lana’s best displays of emotion yet.
Money Power Glory shifts the tone of sadness to her more base desires – greed. The slow pace and chilled out vibe demonstrates perfectly what’s on her mind, which happens to be mere materialistic things, with perilous choruses that slips into threatening. It shows a more powerful Lana rather than a weeping mess from the song before, once again adding another character to the collection of personas throughout Ultraviolence. Personally, it’s not her strongest on the album, definitely the filler song I prefer to skip with her simplistic lyrics of “I want money, power and glory” and “dope and diamonds” that repeats throughout the bridge, but it’s far from her worst effort, instead bringing back the watered down “bad bitch” we have seen several times throughout her music in style.
Lana continues the idea of becoming powerful with one of her most sexually charged songs Fucked My Way Up To The Top, a homage to the idea that she slept with men in the industry to become successful – but also a dig at another singer. Lana’s sugary sweet mocking tied in with sneering remarks such as “I’m a dragon, you’re a whore, don’t even know what you’re good for” show a bitchy side I must admit is a light relief from the ‘sad girl’ she has so often sung as. The boredom in her tone is amusing in the verses, and once again she ramps it up with her raunchy choruses, striking out both verbally and musically at those who hate on her for her sexuality.
Ultraviolence tones it down towards the end of the album, the gentle piano ballad Old Money, which sounds much like the love song from the original Romeo and Juliet -thus capturing the old era she loves with a beloved classic – calming down to a more simple song of looking back on the past and hoping to be called for once more, whilst using her famed . It’s a thought provoking song that is admittedly quite slow and really you have to be in the mood for it, yet the way her vocals grow in strength and emotion are unmissable once you start listening.
Lana closes the album with a cover of Nina Simone’s The Other Woman, echoing the “mistress” character from Sad Girl in a truly heartbreaking rendition of a song that surely inspired her own music.Though some have felt Lana didn’t do the original song justice, I personally feel Lana put her own emotion and glamour into it so it was made her own, the vintage sound harking back to the mid-twentieth century flawlessly. My only criticism really is that it’s such a sad song I can barely listen to it without feeling blue myself, though that aside it’s a strong track that could be mistaken for one of Lana’s.
Though I tried to be as objective as possible, I have little criticism of this album. It definitely has to be one of her best yet, more grounded than Born To Die or the cinematic Honeymoon with the unflinching emotion and stunning vocals, and what many fans surely would consider Lana at her best.