Forget everything you know about Lana Del Rey. That’s what I had to do to hear —really hear — her latest album Ultraviolence. Like when you watch a Roman Polanski movie or listen to Fang, you have to treat Ultraviolence as though it was written by a notorious pervert or a woman-beater: by separating the artist’s personal affairs from the work.
I have to do this with Lana Del Rey, because Lana Del Rey, the star, is annoying. She is the embodiment of the celebrity zeitgeist. From her perfectly curled hair, to her manicured nails, to her clean, blemish-free skin and soft, heart-shaped lips, she is physically flawless. In a recent cover story in the Fader, she (I assume calmly) told the journalist, “My career is a reflection of journalism, current-day journalism. My public persona and career has nothing to do with my internal process or my personal life. It is actually just a reflection on writers’ creative processes and where they’re at in 2014. Literally has nothing to do with me.” Lana Del Rey willingly gives herself up to the public like a projector screen and says, “Reflect. I don’t fucking care.”
By seemingly giving away all control, she has the most of it. Forget the alleged success-via-daddy’s-dollars-
In terms of our so-called public personas, Lana Del Rey and I could not be more opposite (and don’t for a minute here think I don’t realize she and I are not even close to the same level — Lana Del Rey is a pop star; I’m a chick in a band) and this is perhaps why she confuses me, why I’m so attracted to her presentation, and why I can’t decide if I love or hate her while, either way, I admire her drive. I admire her manipulation. I admire her celebrity. But she pisses me off and this is why I have to treat her like Roman Polanski.
Born to Die, her 2012 debut, sucked because it tried too hard. But Ultraviolence is LDR really sorting it out. (Sometimes it takes eight or nine attempts to get it right.) On first listen, Ultraviolence is confusing. Some lyrics are so embarrassing you have to rewind to make sure you heard it right. When I first heard the album, I was lying in the back seat of our tour van as we drove from New York to Montreal. When we stopped for gas, I had to start the LDR discussion with my bandmates. That’s the genius of LDR: she facilitates discussion. She lets you do the talking.
“These lyrics,” I said to my bandmates Hether Fortune and Anne-Marie Vassiliou. “If she is being facetious, it’s genius, but if she is taking herself seriously on ‘Guns and Roses’ and ‘Brooklyn Baby’ then she sounds like someone’s mother painting a picture of what ‘the Google’ told her was ‘rock & roll’ or whatever.”
“Heavy metal love of mine/I should’ve learned to let you stay…/He loved Guns and Roses.”
“She’s definitely not being serious,” Hether said.
“But are you sure?”
(The discussion continued for miles.)
Produced by that nerd from the Black Keys (the worst band on the planet), the actual composition on Ultraviolence is not what this album is about. This album is about showcasing Lana Del Rey’s incredible voice and Keys frontman Dan Auerbach did his job. Going more “rock” (which, in this case, means getting a whammy bar, a Fender Twin and all the reverb pedals in Tennessee) was the right choice. She is suited for ballads and guitars soaked in digital delay. Ultraviolence is wet.
The chorus of “Shades of Cool” has her pulling off delicate opera notes, while “Brooklyn Baby” is a sing-along track with hilarious lyrics that (allegedly) rip on the Greenpoint girls you’d find burning away their trust funds at Coachella. “Well, my boyfriend’s in a band/He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed/I’ve got feathers in my hair/I get high on hydroponic weed.” She even pronounces “talking” like Fran Drescher would —”twalking” — on the bridge. It’s so stupidly camp it has to be funny on purpose. Right? Right?!
The entire first half of the album, all the way up until “Sad Girl” (a jazz-inspired song that tells the story of the submissive, torn-up-by-men Lana Del Rey that the feminists just love to hate) is solid. And then a few duds creep in, although “Money Power Glory,” “Old Money” and “West Coast” make up for the mediocre tracks, especially the extra ones on the deluxe edition. Obviously, bonus tracks aren’t going to be of the same quality as the main tracks (which is why they’re bonus tracks). Girl, “Black Beauty,” “Guns and Roses” and “Florida Kilos” didn’t need to happen. “Guns and Roses” is dull and trying too hard. It finds LDR playing the “old lady” of some metalhead biker while also casting light back on all those old rumors that she was dating Axl Rose. “Motorcycle love, divine/I should’ve learned to let you play/I wasn’t the marryin’ kind/I should’ve done it anyway/He loved Guns and Roses.” LDR is always searching for herself through someone else and sometimes she hits the mark and embodies the character perfectly. The other times, she should have done a little more research.
Early on Ultraviolence, LDR shows you what she can do with her voice, and as it progresses, it becomes repetitive. I mean, when you’re driving long distance, stoned and bored, the extra length is useful and beautiful, but I come from the school of “leave them wanting more” when it comes to making albums. Lana doesn’t do this with Ultraviolence. Instead, she does it with her celebrity. Again, I am enthralled with her ability to do the opposite of what I know how to do.
Still, Ultraviolence grew on me because I let it. Instead of thinking about Lana Del Rey the embodiment of the celebrity zeitgeist, I let the record just be a goddamn record and I listened. I heard a woman with a killer voice, so inimitable I couldn’t even try to sing along, I just had to listen. LDR sings about all the things we want: dope, diamonds, money and love. She paints you into a fantasy: an old, unrealistic world that seems dead when you look at your own bank statement. She is luxury. She’s fantasy. She’s mystery. And she is always up for discussion.