Lana Del Rey’s debut Born to Die suffered from a crisis-of-authenticity, the outrage and barrage of think-pieces as manufactured as the singer’s found-footage videos and pouting sexuality. But beyond all the hipster handwringing, Born to Die simply didn’t have many great songs, and even standouts like “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” were marred by a limping production style.
Her second full-length, Ultraviolence benefits not only from stronger song craft, but also from tasteful production that sustains a mood befitting Lana Del Rey’s postmodern Nancy Sinatra shtick. Blues-rock curator Dan Auerbach is a great fit for Del Rey’s hedonist doom-pop. It’s easy to imagine the Black Key dutifully dialing in copious vintage analog delay, pillaging his basement for the fuzz pedal of just the right vintage. But his touch is thankfully light, trading in Born’s dusty beat sequences and sampled rap yelps for Morricone guitars and beach reverb.
The lyrics mostly rehash Lana’s beat-up baby-doll bit, but with melodies like this, who cares? When she sings “I’ve got feathers in my hair / I get down to beat poetry / And my jazz collection’s rare / I can play most anything” on “Brooklyn Baby”, it’s hard not read it as taunting the detractors she knows so well by now. One can imagine Del Rey’s bedroom floor Oxycontin sprawl, crafting sexysad Burroughs cut-ups. Yes, every man is a too-cool bad-boy. Yes, she’d do anything for him. Yes, the relationship dynamics are straight out of the ’50s. After all Del Rey told The Fader that “feminism is just not an interesting concept.” She teases, “You never liked the way I said it / If you don’t like it then forget it / So I don’t have to fuckin’ explain it.”
The album holds together remarkably well. After all, most good pop albums are pretty much variations on the same single, in this case the superb title track. There are some stumbling points, however. The murky half-time chorus of “West Coast” makes its four minutes seem like eight. The closing track, a cover of the Jessie Mae Robinson penned “The Other Woman”, jarringly contrasts the established ambience, feeling tacked-on. Highlights ultimately prevail, though, especially in the delightfully brazen “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”, which plays like Bacharach and David for the broke and drunk.
Most importantly, Del Rey’s voice sounds better than ever. Ditching the cooing baby rap of her debut, she doubles down on the numbed croon and low register sass in which she excels. On occasion she whips out the fragile falsetto, playing naughty with Auerbach’s guitar on “Pretty When You Cry” and “Money Power Glory”. Most impressive is the Shirley Bassey “You’re invinsible” chorus of “Shades of Cool”. Turns out James Bond is just Jimmy, a handsome high-school dropout with a drug stash that rivals his record collection.
And let’s not overlook that title, the least played up of all her literary allusions here. This is a great pop record. Or as Anthony Burgess might have put it: Sip some vehina in your toofles this nochy and sloosh this ptitsa’s warbles. Bolshy timps and a bit of boohoohoo crarking. This cheena may be buggaty, but she sounds like she wants to snuff it.