Saturday 14 June 2014

Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence [Album Review]

Lana Del Rey is back with her third studio album, Ultraviolence, and it's as atmospherically cinematic and deeply dark as ever. Released on the 16th/17th June, in the UK and US, respectively, we see a more refined Del Rey teaming up with Dan Auerbach, who have created an album filled with nostalgia, retro and vintage elements, combined with jazz tones and an increasingly dependable guitar. Drawing inspiration from the West Coast, as well as Brooklyn (New York), the album sees Del Rey's swooning voice reach new heights.  

Before we focus on the album itself, it seems evident to reflect on what some critics have confused; mixing the artist and the music itself. Some seem to focus on the persona of Del Rey's character as problematic and anti-feminist. I would argue that it would be a mistake to assume that a piece of music has to focus on portraying, what has now become, an almost stereotype - the 'strong' female character. To clarify, some media forms (film, music, television) now seem to add in a stereotypically 'strong' female character to 'balance out' what it might seem to be a gendered divide. This helps no-one - the 'strong' character is usually vastly underdeveloped and seems to be praising women for adopting what is stereotypically known as 'male characteristics', without taking into account that human beings (women included!) are complex individuals capable of a multitude of emotions, thoughts and actions at any given point. To have lyrics focus on 'strong' women for the sake of 'strong women', is actually quite insulting; Del Rey's tracks explore the idea of devotion without suggesting that this is the norm, or condoning the actions of her characters. In this sense, she is exploring an archetype of a character (Lolita, the infamous 'Bad' Boy, etc.) as opposed to making a statement on what ones perception of feminism is. If anything, Ultraviolence makes more cultural references; odes to generations; fantasies of an era. By encompassing cinematic film-noir elements to her music, Del Rey is referencing the historic, the classical film styles that have their individual characteristics in her music, through her use of dramatic acoustics and sweeping vocals, and references. 

Now, back to the album. Demonstrating a shift in the usual submissive tide, ‘Brooklyn Baby’ is a welcome addition to the album, as the track covers the perception of others, whilst affirming that Del Rey is indeed cooler than her boyfriend (‘Yeah my boyfriend’s pretty cool/ But he’s not as cool as me’). Accompanied by an electric guitar, triumphant drum beats and subtle percussion, ‘Brooklyn Baby’ is essentially Del Rey’s way of saying you can ‘beat it’ if you don’t like it, and if you don’t understand why (she likes her generation). It’s an interesting track that delves into the self-confidence that you may not expect from the persona of Del Rey’s character, but it makes for a rather more intriguing listen and is unusually catchy for a piece that’s only hook is ‘Brooklyn Baby’.

Holding the fort and also serving as the lead single is the undeniably smooth ‘West Coast’, which features a shift in tempos which marked out a different style for Del Rey upon its release. The switches in tempo create a rather distinctive pace to the track and Del Rey’s airy vocals make for, compositionally, a rather strong piece of music. The song is very ethereal and atmospheric, and it is a stand-out track on the album, echoing the fact that Del Rey is ‘in love’. In contrast, the title track 'Ultraviolence' surrounds itself with controversy. Aside from the questionable lyrics (which ultimately can be interpreted in many ways - from an overdose to actual physical violence), 'Ultraviolence' is masterfully composed, with a aura of adoration muddled with disturbing undertones that are intertwined with Del Rey's sultry voice.

The second release from Ultraviolence was the haunting ‘Shades of Cool’, which presents itself as a bit of a sombre ballad, infused with the distinctive electric bass and guitar that is now a staple of the album. The song switches between two different tones, with Lana usually her particular drawl in a truly captivating manner before she hits the chorus and switches into a more wailing and whimsical sound, singing ‘you live in Shades of Cool/ your heart is unbreakable’. 

Del Rey’s track have a strong essence of self-awareness and encompass a rather witty charm, (evident in the stereotypical references to beat poetry in ‘Brooklyn Baby’) and this is overwhelmingly apparent in the sarcastic and effortlessly addictive ‘Money Power Glory’ (which reminds us a little of ‘Power and Control’ by Marina Diamandis). There is so much charisma in this song that it almost threatens to overload the album, but ‘Money Power Glory’ fights its way to the top as one of the hidden gems of Ultraviolence. Sexual domination is rife in ‘Fucked My Way Up To The Top’ as Del Rey announces that ‘this is my show’, whilst ‘Sad Girl’ paints an abandoned (and you guessed it – sad) image of a mistress who is involved with an affair with a man. ‘Pretty When You Cry’ is also riddled with devotion and isolation, with Del Rey reluctantly croaking her heart out in bitter verses. The tracks which don’t seem to quite pack the same punch as the rest of the album include the repetitive and contrastingly dull ‘Cruel World’ and the unsubstantial ‘Sad Girl’, whilst ‘Guns and Roses’ (available on the deluxe) does nothing to elevate the album, thought it is a bonus track, so we can’t really complain. 

Aside from the 11 tracks on the standard album, the deluxe box-set of Ultraviolence contains the previously unreleased ‘Black Beauty’, as well as ‘Guns and Roses’ and ‘Florida Kilos’. ‘Black Beauty’ is a ballad-esque track, focuses on the usual gloom and doom romanticism that Del Rey is known for ‘I paint the house black/ My Wedding dress black leather, too’. There is a subtle sound of loss, and un-enlightenment, as Lana coos ‘Life is beautiful/but you don’t have a clue’ at intervals on the track. The exotic ‘Florida Kilos’ is distinctly retro, and echoes her ‘Born to Die’ days as she spouts about cola and lime in a drawn-back drawl that is reminiscent of ‘Queen of Disaster’ and ‘This is What Makes Us Girls’. 

The sombre and twisted themes of the album have always been present in Lana’s work, and it is this that is perhaps the album’s only downfall. By focusing on themes that have a repetitive edge it tends to devalue the originality of the concept; put simply, Ultraviolence would be better off if it steered away from the elements that have been touched upon in previous albums Born To Die and the Paradise edition. This is not to say that one cannot focus on the same archetypes and moody stylization, it is simply suggesting that it would be an even more engaging album if the topics of red dresses, craziness and the repetitive ‘baby’ departed from near view (or at least didn’t take centre stage as much). However, the dark depths from which Ultraviolence focuses on are strangely atmospheric, and the tracks themselves are beautifully composed, featuring a preference for the guitar (electric in places) and accompanying percussion instruments. Combined with the airy and elusive vocals of Del Rey, the tracks are elevated to new heights, and make for quite compelling music, despite the relatively dark nature of the lyrical content. 

As an album, Ultraviolence is eerily cohesive; much like the black and white prints that adorn the album covers, Del Rey echoes the vintage and the classics, sweeping us back to the 50s, 60s and 70s. The aesthetic is bold and in-keeping with the cinematic theme, the album’s music is stylized to perfection and Del Rey’s commitment to (what can sometimes sound ironic) romanticism adds to the realism of what is essentially, a dark and destructive thematic. 

4 stars

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