The most fascinating and divisive pop icon of the last three years has just released what looks to be this year’s most interesting album. For a sophomore effort, Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence is remarkably confident in its sonic template, representing a sensible but conspicuously fresh artistic direction for her.
As I’ve noted previously, Del Rey and company (predominantly Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and frequent collaborator Rick Nowles) have largely ditched the lush production embellishments and trip-hop influences that previously drew comparisons to artists like Portishead. Rather, the musical accompaniment has been palpably subdued and repurposed to better highlight Del Rey’s smooth, floating whispers and piercing sighs of discontent.
True, the album boasts its fair share of the wailing strings and groaning piano keys we heard on Born to Die and its supplemental EP Paradise. But where Born to Die was spotty, whimsical, and stylistically noncommittal, Ultraviolence has been honed to a steady, sullen hum. Ultraviolence conclusively positions Del Rey as heir to what Camille Paglia once described as Marilyn Monroe’s defining personality traits: “insecure, depressive, passive-aggressive, and infuriatingly obstructionist in her career habits.”
In this sense, the record can be considered a distillation and refinement of what may be termed Lana Del Rey’s “Sad Girl Aesthetic.”
But to say that Del Rey sounds more confident this time around is somewhat misleading. This record is a remarkably sad one. Profound self-anguish and moody indifference adorn virtually every lyric and note. Even more so than on previous efforts, Ultraviolence indulges in the singular melancholy we’ve come to identify with the artist, her recital flowing like cold, bittersweet syrup. As was the case with the best of her previous material, Ultraviolence is a record that slowly infects the emotions and ballasts the listener into a numbing, contemplative experience.
“Cruel World” begins with a droll, swaggering tune about bourbon and a “little red party dress.” It’s a pleasing track, but difficult not to skip over in favor of “Ultraviolence,” the gorgeous and provocative second track. Its soft and soothing pace hypnotically draws the listener into its thematically complex lyrics and skillfully sets the mood for the record as a whole.
The other three previously released singles occupy the balance of the first half of the record, with the underrated “Shades of Cool” really shining.
At track six, “Sad Girl” sits at the record’s chilly, depraved heart. It practically functions as the artist’s definitive personal statement. It’s my favorite track on the album, as it features Del Rey doing her absolute best seedy lounge singer routine, channeling the ethereal bliss of Julee Cruise mixed with the bawdy cynicism of Mae West. Recalling Born to Die’s “Million Dollar Man,” she invokes all the best sleazy Lynchian signifiers and glows with cigarettes-and-lipstick film noir sexuality. I get the sense that Laura Palmer would have loved this song.
The likably weepy “Pretty When You Cry” and melodic “Money Power Glory” continue in that same vein, peppered with powerful moments of personal frustration and resignation. “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” is another of the album’s real standout tracks, its acrid tone complemented by some Del Rey’s most creative vocals to date. The album closes out with “Old Money,” an uncharacteristically sweet, yearning anthem and a well-executed (if a bit incongruous) cover of ‘The Other Woman.”
If you’re wondering whether to spring for the bonus tracks, the answer is yes. “Black Beauty” is quite a pretty track, and “Florida Kilos” (co-written by Harmony Korine!!!) is the funnest Lana Del Rey song since “Diet Mountain Dew.”
Aural strengths aside, Ultraviolence has already faced considerable controversy. The record was released fresh on the heels of her now-notorious interview with The Fader, in which she said,
“For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept…I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”
Predictably, she drew ire from the usual opinion outlets. The Daily Beast called the statement “inarguably uninspiring, and simply strange coming from an artist whose work is clearly preoccupied with notions of female empowerment, sexuality, and identity.” More forcefully, Ms. accused her of “verbally promot[ing] violence against women” and conclusively declared: “If we as a society accept the disempowered form of femininity that Del Rey embodies, young women are truly in trouble.”
Now, sure, I can see where such criticisms are coming from. Much of the album, and indeed Del Rey’s persona at large, touches on some very real and serious issues in our society related to sex, gender, and equality. Additionally, I can understand the frustration some feel with the pop world’s blanket rejection of the label “feminism,” a decision no doubt influenced more by how the word “polls” than any form of rational analysis.
But that is not judging the work on its own terms. Del Rey herself has acknowledged as much, practically begging observers to de-politicize her expression and absolve her of responsibility for mounting an offensive against patriarchy. She told the New York Times,
“For me the argument of feminism never really should have come into the picture. Because I don’t know too much about the history of feminism, and so I’m not really a relevant person to bring into the conversation. Everything I was writing was so autobiographical, it could really only be a personal analysis.”
As such, ideological objections to Lana Del Rey miss the point of her work entirely. It’s easy to take a song called “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” out of its proper context and remark, “if Del Rey makes any claims to personal agency at all, it is through her sexuality.” But if you’re interested in a serious aesthetic evaluation, that assessment is both unfair and intellectually reductive.
Indeed, a casual listen to the album as a whole reveals that when Del Rey self-objectifies, she’s not bragging. Nor is there any pride taken in a statement like “I’m Pretty When I Cry.” These are depressive affectations of an over-scrutinized artist who recently told the world, “I wish I was dead already.”
What some feminist critics of Del Rey’s “Sad Girl aesthetic” get wrong about her –indeed, what’s been misinterpreted about her since her brilliantly heartbreaking ode to codependency “Video Games” three years ago –is that her music isn’t intended to be, nor should it be taken as, a glorification of feminine disempowerment. Rather, it’s an expressive vehicle for communicating the deep and complicated subjectivities of a certain kind of experience in our society.
When it comes to ideological objections to pop art in particular, it’s can’t be repeated enough: a depiction is not an endorsement. We’ve seen this problem time and again lately in the movie world; see, e.g., Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Today, as ever, understanding the distinction between depiction and endorsement is a condition precedent to mature consumption and commentary on modern pop art –or, at the very least, to sincerely listening to this album.