Lana Del Rey’s third full-length Ultraviolence leans heavily toward one facet of the singer-songwriter’s persona while attempting to ditch another. She painstakingly conveys an aloof, chic demeanor, but she’s beyond childish voice affectations and immediate pop hooks, choosing instead to embrace authentic instrumentation and a darker image.
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced most of Ultraviolence, but his involvement doesn’t inherently attest to Del Rey’s maturity. In fact, the album’s production—which welcomes some of Auerbach’s bluesy guitar work—shows Del Rey’s most substantial evolution. Reverb-laced vocals and guitars add cinematic flair to dismal ballads, and there’s no shortage of those. Still, Del Rey herself hasn’t changed as much as the album’s new personnel might otherwise indicate. Born to Die’s wry personality often registered as borderline satire. Ultraviolence lacks Born to Die’s (perhaps unintended) humor, and the shift in tone casts Del Rey’s sophomore effort in a new light. Maybe those cutesy references to wealth, status, and gloom were dead serious all along.
Ultraviolence, then, has much clearer intentions than 2012’s Born to Die. The album tries so hard to cultivate a particular image of Lana Del Rey that it forgets nuance. “I’m pretty when I cry,” she sings, a puzzling admission that serves Del Rey’s image more than it does the song’s actual context. She crowns herself a queen and a “sad girl.” She brags about her impressive jazz collection. She flaunts her Hollywood know-how. She identifies with upper class New Yorkers. But the 28-year-old isn’t the most convincing portrait of style and elegance; she doesn’t have the lyrical capacity. To summarize her desires in one succinct phrasing, she repeats, without a shred of irony, “Dope and diamonds.”
Ultraviolence isn’t entirely shallow. The tragic title track tackles domestic violence. “Shades of Cool” recognizes the perils of maintaining a relationship with an addict. And “Old Money” praises Del Rey’s parents, using colorful imagery to describe scattered childhood memories: “Cashmere, cologne, and white sunshine. Red racing cars, Sunset and Vine. The kids were young and pretty.”
The album’s point of reference was probably “Young and Beautiful” from 2013’s The Great Gatsby soundtrack; Ultraviolence is a series of throwbacks to Del Rey’s biggest non-remix single. These songs sway, settle, and favor tranquil slow-dance rhythms to trip hop. Del Rey also ditches the Lolita-obsessed young girl persona of “Off to the Races,” and her trademark huskiness takes a backseat to more conventionally pretty vocals. Del Rey adopts a higher pitch throughout Ultraviolence, which peaks in the ethereal standout “Shades of Cool.”
Ultraviolence is deliberately paced. Its hooks are far from immediate, and anti-party anthems are shrouded in constant sadness. Del Rey is particularly clumsy, lyrically, and the downbeat tone of the album is uniform. There are many hiccups along the way, but Ultraviolence manages to transcend modern pop with angelic singing, blues-informed production, and a healthy dose of nostalgia.