Daunting though it may be to perpetually remain the object of public scrutiny, there has to be something quite alluring about wearing a big letter C upon one’s chest. The word “Celebrity” is both encrusted in diamonds and saturated in poison. Revered by some and reviled by others, celebrities often voice their frustration with having their private lives placed on a thin sliver of glass underneath the lens of a tabloid microscope. Their daily existence is poured into something resembling a petri dish, to be analyzed and observed by the masses, while paparazzi and the media invade even their most mundane of activities. The ordinary is fluffed up and injected with importance, even if it’s as unremarkable as buying fruit in a farmer’s market. No matter what the age, there’s always been a fascination with dissecting these figures we’ve placed upon lit pedestals. The media’s preoccupation with the life of singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey is no different.
Both perpetually maligned and adored, Del Rey’s entrance into the music world gave critics, new fans and know-it-all hipster naysayers something to discuss and debate ever since “Video Games” saturated the blogosphere. Her upbringing, her backstory and her indie cred were all intimately dissected to death, yet she somehow survived relatively unscathed, even when the constant barrage of criticism wore her down emotionally. That’s basically what the public has been led to believe through her recent interviews, but it seems logical enough, given that artists occasionally read commentary of their work and take what’s written to heart.
Those who thought her expiration date would be drawing nigh have been proven wrong. Even if her latest effort Ultraviolence doesn’t break any record sales, it’s doubtful Del Rey will be going anywhere anytime soon, unless it’s on her own accord. She once intimated that her 2012 album Born to Die would be her last, but clearly she had more to say after last year’s short film Tropico. Or does she? Listening to the often uninspired lyrics of Ultraviolence, one would be tempted to say no, yet that’s only one marred facet of this curiously beautiful new record. The pre-release racket has been surprisingly quiet until now, but curiosity has been piqued as of late. If the recent spike in online activity is any indication, Ultraviolence has reignited the Del Rey debate and both her relevance and artistry are once again placed underneath the blade of a critical scalpel.
Ultraviolence takes its name from Anthony Burgess’s classic dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange and Kubrick’s film adaptation, where the word was used in reference to violence of an extreme nature. Its inclusion here, as the title of her latest artistic expression, seems a bit of a sardonic retort to her detractors. Song titles like “Money Power Glory” and “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” drip with sarcasm, but there’s often a little bit of truth in what an artist presents. Whether she really laid down for record execs in order to further her career in the past or not, are we supposed to care at this point? Doesn’t it ultimately come down to the music and the talent?
The reality is that her contralto voice is now quite competent in a live setting, and on Ultraviolence, Del Rey’s vocal delivery shows increased maturity and assuredness. The haunting chorus of “Shades of Cool” and the reverb-drenched harmonies of atmospheric bonus track “Guns and Roses” unexpectedly recall the gorgeously ethereal vocals of Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser. Del Rey has never sounded better. The hip-hop aesthetic has disappeared almost entirely and Yoann Lemoine’s orchestral-stringed dramaticism has been replaced with a seven-piece band and the deft production work of the Black Key‘s Dan Auerbach. The grandeur has been substituted for something hazier, grittier, and more guitar and drum-laden, save for the exquisitely indelible “Old Money”, with an orchestral arrangement by legendary film composer Nino Rota, of The Godfather trilogy fame. Del Rey has always had a way with a melody, but her songwriting’s infinitely more accomplished here than anything on Born to Die.
The album’s drawback lies within the lyrical content and unfortunately the subject matter hasn’t progressed much. That little red dress she mentioned wearing and removing on previous releases, resurfaces in the opening track “Cruel World”. The men are still very, very bad and the women continue to be calculated temptresses with fatal character flaws, or they’re pathetically spineless and addicted to drugs and abusive love. “Sad Girl” tells the wretched tale of a “bad bitch” hooker infatuated with her john, but after the umpteenth time Del Rey has mentioned that she’s “sad”, it’s a bit difficult to care. “Pretty When I Cry” describes the pathetic plight of a drug-addicted woman who pines for a love unrequited. Del Rey’s cracked voice perfectly echoes the spirit of her broken heroine, as an electric guitar wails in the background, highlighting the desperation of the lyrics.
The Greg Kurstin-produced “Money Power Glory” features an avaricious dame who’s determined to “take you for all that you got”. Once again, Lana refers to herself, or rather her character, as a “bitch”, but it all seems a bit tongue-in-cheek here and confidently sultry. Del Rey’s cover of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman” proves an unnecessary addition to the album, and her lackluster interpretation doesn’t warrant its inclusion. If the lyrics weren’t depressing enough, the record’s dour mood should come with a warning sticker slapped on the cover saying, “May invoke an indigo blue funk. Approach with caution.” The tempos seem locked into one long, quaalude-induced trance, but damn if the music and performances aren’t seductively hypnotic despite it all.
She’s been denounced for appearing to condone violence both in the lyrical form and in her occasionally lurid videos, in addition to being accused of playing into sexist stereotypes and being an anti-feminist. That won’t change with this album. In the title track Del Rey sings, “I can hear sirens, sirens. He hit me and it felt like a kiss”, referencing the similarly-titled, 1962 song by the Crystals. Some will say that the track romanticizes domestic violence, but it appears less as if she’s turning a blind eye to the brutality, and more as if she’s simply documenting its existence. Anyone expecting a grand metamorphosis or startling reinvention of her sound, might leave the Ultraviolence experience wanting more, but while the formula has been given a bit of a facelift, the resulting product is so lovingly crafted it’s hard not to admire the musicianship on display.
It seems that Elizabeth “Lizzie” Grant had to figuratively die before the Lana Del Rey “persona” could truly be birthed, although, she insists that she has always remained true to herself and isn’t really a provocateur at all. Depends on one’s definition of provocateur I suppose. One could catch a whiff of her girl-gone-bad routine from the outset, but it was seemingly fine-tuned by the time Born to Die had arrived. There is a poignant line in the 2011 film My Week With Marilyn when Michelle Williams, playing the vulnerable Monroe says, “Shall I be her?” It’s not quite unlike what Del Rey has done. The “persona” is but an extension of her past experiences and an homage to the decadent glamour of those icons, like Monroe, who Del Rey idolizes.
A few years ago, I came across Lana dining out with her family in midtown Manhattan to celebrate her sister Caroline’s graduation from Parsons. We briefly discussed the life of an artist and the thrills and perils of the music business. In the midst of fans approaching for photos and signatures, she told me something that seemed both simplistic and intelligently resonate: “Surround yourself with others who can make your artistic vision come to life.” Del Rey is firmly in control of her appearance and her music, so regardless of whether or not anyone buys into her image or her past, it’s undeniable that she has made that vision a reality. Iconic personalities arrive in the spotlight and ultimately pass on from this life, but their legacies somehow linger on in the minds of society and in those individuals who replace them and take up the scepter. The Norma Jeans of the world appear to hover in a sacred place where their artistic legacy never really dies. Lana Del Rey hasn’t quite reached the celebrity status to be deemed an icon, but her obsession with them is such that it will be interesting to see if one day, she’ll join their ranks in the public consciousness. In the interim, Ultraviolence is a beautiful argument for her relevance and her potential longevity.