Label: Interscope/Polydor Records
Although at no point does she rap, there’s definitely a kind of hip-hop swagger in Lana Del Rey’s third studio release, Ultraviolence. Not the superficial swagger of wanna-be gangstas flashing bling, capitalizing on popular culture’s obsession with underworld urban lifetstyle; it’s more like this unshakable confidence and dark authenticity that oozes seductively from every melodic phrase she purrs.
Del Rey appears to have discovered a particular niche in the pop-cultural ecosystem. Where other popstars continue to trend new heights (or depths) of absurd, garish kitsch, appropriating low-frequency oscillations from underground electronica and dressing like extras in The Fifth Element, the 28 year-old singer/songwriter has taken an obtuse stylistic trajectory, eschewing the excessive, attention-seeking aesthetic of her peers for one more pared down – a kind of irresistibly doomed yet dangerous femme fatale that seems to have stepped out of every film noir lurking in the eternity of America’s collective unconscious.
If there are any synthesizers on Ultraviolence, they are so subtly concealed within the sonic architecture as to be almost unrecognizable. Instead, the production takes a backseat, relying upon a foundation based mostly on conventional guitar, bass, drums, with strings to accent the parts needing greater intensity; this allows Del Rey’s sultry, breathy vocals and impressively lyrical songwriting skills to shine forth. Indeed, her ineffably seductive voice really carries the songs to great heights of uniqueness and novelty. The production wisely focuses on this, using tasteful amounts of reverb and layering effects to accentuate her vulnerable-yet-razor-sharp inflective timbre.
The term “cinematic” is frequently associated with Del Rey’s work. Ultraviolence does not contradict this tendency. It’s not something that will get played in clubs and dancehalls; it is more like the soundtrack to the secret movies playing in our minds, where the colours are more vivid, the contrast higher, the sensations more intense, tugging at the inner experiences – lust, longing, despair, the drive to self-destruction – that social propriety dictates be suppressed and forgotten. Del Rey manages to evoke these shadowy emotions without wallowing in them or being dragged by their weight.
There are some really tasty, unforgettable lines, like, from the title track, “Ultraviolence / You hit me and it felt like a kiss”. Other tracks make ironic criticism of superficial cultural tendencies while at the same time, in a way, embracing and reappropriating them. One of the album’s most memorable songs, “Money Power Glory” seems to be directed at the hypocritical ideals behind industry and government: “You talk lots about God / Freedom comes from the call / but that’s not what this bitch wants / not what I want at all”, but Del Rey doesn’t merely denounce these institutions, she sublimates them into a transcendant chorus that sounds like a post-apocalyptic gospel choir, so that even the egocentric materialism seemingly inherent in the song’s title takes on a redemptive quality, an intense, goddess-like femininity that draws its strength from emotional intensity rather than being overcome or manipulated by it. “Fucked My Way Up To the Top” is another track ironically criticising superficial misuse of feminine power which simultaneously mocks and eclipses other female stars who have either succumbed to or been manipulated by the exploitative nature of the commercial music industry.
While a lot of artists are embracing a vintage aesthetic with varying degrees of success, Lana Del Rey’s music does not imitate already established genres so much as draw from their essence to create an altogether unique sound. Del Rey’s work has depth as well as glamour, and the timeless quality of Ultraviolence suggests that her work will outlast many of her more gimmick-oriented contemporaries.