By Spencer. It’s not cool anymore to like Lana Del Rey. It was cool for about a month, back when she was blowing up the internet with the song “Video Games” and she didn’t even have an album yet. But as soon as Born To Die was released and she started making promotional appearances, it became immediately apparent that she was actually trying to be cool, and there’s nothing more uncool about that — even if she was doing it ironically, and doing things ironically is the pinnacle of cool. The thing is, Lana Del Rey knows all this. It’s practically all her music is about. And cool or not, her new album, Ultraviolence, stays true to all that Lana Del Rey is while also managing to take a few small steps forward.
The thing you have to understand is that Lana Del Rey is a character. Whoever Elizabeth Grant may be in real life, she’s so far only made fleeting appearances on a Lana Del Rey album. The rest of it is caricature, a send-up of who she wants to be and who everyone wants her to be. She’s the musical equivalent of an internet troll, singing vacantly about sex and alcohol and money and fame and daring all of us to take her seriously so she can continue to fuck with us. It’s music mocking itself in real time.
The question is, how long can she get away with it before it just gets boring? Her sound — 60s movie glam with elements of lounge and hip-hop — is so essential to the act that to change it would be to abandon the very things she’s attempting to satire. That leaves precious little room for evolution, and she seems to know it. So don’t expect a huge change of direction on Ultraviolence. All the familiar pieces are still there: the smooth, crooning vocals tinged with purposeful boredom; the cinematic swelling strings and slow beats; the rap inflection of her rhymes; the filthy seductress lyrics disguising a brutal indictment of American youth culture.
But this time out, there’s a little more experimentation to the songwriting and the production, and it’s clear that Del Rey is flirting with more than just boys. “Shades Of Cool” is vintage Lana Del Rey so far as the subject matter is concerned, but it eschews her usual sleepy vibe in the end for one bitchin’ guitar solo. “Sad Girl” does nothing lyrically, but has some pretty tastes of Spanish guitar. “Brooklyn Baby” is a parody of typical hipster braggadocio, with Del Rey checking off her points of cred like a shopping list: “Well, my boyfriend’s in the band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed / I’ve 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.”
Then there’s “West Coast,” a song with a faster beat and a more modern vibe built around a nifty guitar lick and some jarring tempo changes. Listen closely and the urgency in her vocals starts to sound genuine for a moment, the performance dropped, as she groans about something a hell of a lot simpler than satire: being in love.
Lana Del Rey – “West Coast”
Things get even more serious on the title track, “Ultraviolence,” a song about devotion in the midst of an abusive relationship: “I can hear sirens, sirens / He hit me and it felt like a kiss / I can hear violins, violins / Give me all of that ultraviolence.” This track and others, such as the closing cover of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman,” feel like messages. This isn’t Lana Del Rey singing anymore — it’s Elizabeth Grant, and there’s real pain in it.
Then, as if to take it all back, there’s “Money Power Glory” and “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” two tracks that unimaginatively rehash the hip-hop burlesque she’s best known for while doing nothing new musically. Maybe that’s to be expected. We all use humor as a coping mechanism, and while Lana Del Rey’s music is often a biting farce, it’s also a clever mask. Which suggest there’s something hiding underneath.
If Lana Del Rey is a character, she’s played by someone with real talent. The surprising thing about Ultraviolence is if that Elizabeth Grant continues to show more of herself in her music, we may just find that we like her better that way.