Lana Del Rey | ARTIST
Ultraviolence | ALBUM
Interscope | LABEL
17 June 2014 | RELEASE DATE
8.5 | 10
What happens when you become famous before anyone knows who you are? Lana Del Rey seemed to spring out organically into the world back in 2011, on the strength of early singles “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games”. The “hip-hop Nancy Sinatra” tag was a clever elevator pitch, and her tepid Interscope debut Born To Die was watered down so much it may have sold even better had it been packaged as Dasani. Her music reached an even wider audience last summer, when Cedric Gervais’s remix of “Summertime Sadness” became a sleeper hit, and suddenly “EDM Nancy Sinatra” was an inevitable ugly truth. So it comes as a surprise that Ultraviolence partly serves as a rejection of the safeness of Born to Die, if not that album’s lyrical tropes. A minute into “Cruel World”, the expansive opening number, the singer born Lizzy Grant already touches on many of the same lyrical ideas first touched upon on Born to Die. “Little red party dress”? Check. A glass of bourbon? Did you even have to ask? Dancing (in circles, or any type of light)? Three out of three! At nearly seven minutes, it is the longest song on Ultraviolence by a minute, yet the track hardly sounds superfluous at any point during its runtime. Dan Auerbach’s production throughout plays to Grant’s strengths, finally matching the Lana Del Rey aesthetic to a refreshing, unique sound. Gone are the awkwardly placed hip-hop ad-libs and the generally canned productions; if you weren’t sure after “Cruel World”, within the first 15 seconds of the title track it becomes obvious. Some familiar string work introduces the track, and where on Die an uninspiring beat would drop three seconds in, here she and her band let things play out in real time
But in the end, this is music that can only work with an accomplished singer. And that is exactly what Lana Del Rey shows herself to be throughout Ultraviolence. “Brooklyn Baby”, while being one of the best songs of the year, is also one of Grant’s best vocal performances to date. “I got feathers in my hair / I get down to Beat poetry / And my jazz collection’s rare / I can play most anything / I’m a Brooklyn baby,” she sings during the chorus, at first in her lower register before cooing the final line with a remarkable softness. It’s hard to tell if she’s romanticizing these notions or mocking those who would make such a claim, and in a lesser vocalist’s hands, their intentions would be terribly obvious, but Grant is so great working within the framework of the Lana Del Rey character, giving her phenomenal range, so much so that she can pull off something like “Shades of Cool” and “Old Money” with equal amounts of honesty and conviction. “Pretty When You Cry” is another vocal stunner, held together by exquisite guitar playing by Blake Stranathan, and builds to one of the most emphatic climaxes on the album, with Del Rey’s layered vocals adding a nice duality to the track. The following “Money Power Glory” finds her working hand-in-hand with the backing instrumentation. It’s also always a good thing when she sings, “but that’s not what this bitch wants”, so the track has that going for it, too. That track, along with “Old Money”, form the emotional core of Ultraviolence, the former featuring one of Lana Del Rey’s strongest melodies to date and the latter is a heartbreaking tale of doubt and devotion.
Enlisting Auerbach as producer was an exciting proposition when it was first announced, but no one could have expected the results to be this fruitful. The Black Keys frontman seems to have helped guide Grant to a sound that perfectly fits her strengths. Her detached, American pin-up persona works extremely well in the context of the album’s live instrumentation. To put it frankly, Grant has never sounded so engaged to her recordings as she does here. Her music has always worked best when it lands in the realm of subtlety, so it comes as no surprise that the biggest misstep here is the fire-fanning “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”. Apparently written about a singer who first ridiculed the Lana Del Rey persona, only to cop it for themselves, the song’s attempt at being salacious and head-turning works as well as the time she sang “My pussy tastes like Coca Cola” on The Paradise Edition of Born to Die. But that’s only a minor blip in what is otherwise one of the best mainstream pop albums of 2014, an album that finds Lizzy Grant taking Lana Del Rey to new heights, lyrically and compositionally. One moment I continue to recall on Ultraviolence occurs during “Brooklyn Baby,” right before the chorus drops in. Grant sings with stunning clarity, “I’m free,” as if floating above the ether herself. Lana Del Rey has found peace in the Ultraviolence.