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Ultraviolence is even more fucked up than Lana Del Rey has been in the past. Sure, there was always something a little unhinged about a grown woman dreaming of being Lolita. But it always felt like experimenting, like Lizzy Grant (Del Rey’s real name) was dipping a toe into the water of her sepia-toned rock n roll fantasy.
Here, though, the dark nostalgia fits her like a glove. Grant has figured out exactly how to be Lana Del Rey, and the fully unfurled bloom of her persona is impressive.
It wouldn’t work if she didn’t throw herself into it the whole tragic romance shtick so completely. Titles like Sad Girl, Money Power Glory and Fucked My Way To The Top are placed on the track listing without a hint of irony. This album is the opposite of a tongue-in-cheek throwback record. All the kitsch, artifice and melodrama are unashamedly presented to listeners and, much to Del Rey’s credit, it works.
She’s been criticised in the past for having a weak voice, but here she demonstrates mastery over the range she hangs. There are glimpses of operatic clarity and raw, bluesy contralto. Her seductive coos are further infantilised. Her voice cracks and pleads as she makes demands like “get a little bourbon in ya”. Her sighs are longer and needier, her falsetto wilder. There is something bewitchingly terrifying about her combination of innocence and depravity, simultaneously sounding like a sweet little girl and a steely knife’s edge.
Listen: Lana Del Rey – Brooklyn Baby
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s production is lush and fitting. As ever, the themes of the album are cinematic and inflated with high drama, dotted with out-of-place references delivered in offbeat hiccups. One prime example: apparently she’s a fan of hydroponic weed.
Well-placed bubbles of trippy guitar shudder with reverb, like Tame Impala if Kevin Parker fell down a rabbit hole of problem drinking and rough sex. The use of guitar is restrained, each note carefully chosen, so that when it does burst into life — notably in the middle of Shades of Cool — it sounds uncontained and powerful. Rhythmically, the album is awash with hi-hats and doleful thumps of the kick drum. Strings and piano are used sparingly, but to great effect.
Like Del Rey’s apparent inspiration, Lolita, there is something uncomfortable about the fact that Ultraviolence is so enjoyable. Surely we shouldn’t be so into a pouting beauty singing about how she’s too young for her boyfriend, who beats her anyway, but at least she’s pretty when she’s cries. Nevertheless, enjoyable it is.
It helps that by now we know that Lana Del Rey is a fictional creation, woven together from classic movies, icons who died young, Americana, and really good song-writing. And if Lolita (along with Tarantino, Game of Thrones, and countless other examples) has taught us anything, it’s that we like our pop culture fiction fucked up.
Watch: Lana Del Rey – Shades Of Cool