Lana Del Rey's new album may superficially seem like more of the same. Certainly Del Rey has picked up where she left off on Born to Die. Her haunting, raspy vocals are still there, as are the depressing lyrics of a disillusioned woman looking for a life she craves on the wrong side of the tracks.
But actually Ultraviolence sees Del Rey abandon all pretence of pop-friendly tracks and embrace a far more menacing, darker atmosphere and lyrics. Where Born to Die saw Lana Del Rey both ambivalent and confused about what she wanted from life, Ultraviolence sees her state clearly the life she wants - and accepting of the consequences that will come of it.
Wikipedia classifies Del Rey as "dream pop," no doubt trying to convey the slow music tempo and dreamy, raspy vocals. But here on Ultraviolence that dream is more like a nightmare as Lana Del Rey lets the darkness overcome her.
Track One: Cruel World
This track sets the tone for the album perfectly. Over a slow thumping beat, Lana dances on the grave of a dead relationship. "I shared my body and mind with you / that's all over now/ I did what I had to do / I found another anyhow." Ouch. Lana is a cruel woman at the centre of her own cruel world.
Track Two: Ultraviolence
The title track is about a violent abusive relationship with Lana even repeating the controversial The Crystals' lyric "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" for good measure. But this abuse isn't packaged up as a catchy pop song, this is a very dramatic production.
The subject matter makes you wince but this is an extremely well produced song. The way Del Rey offsets "I can hear violins" with "I can hear sirens" is smart as well as tragic.
Track Three: Shades of Cool
A sad, slow song about being in love with an emotionally unavailable man. Not an unusual theme for Lana Del Rey but what's interesting is the bite in the lyric towards her competition. "And when he calls/he calls for me and not for you."
And that really is the marked change in this album's lyrics from Born to Die. On Ultraviolence, there's no interest in courting sympathy.
Track Four: Brooklyn Baby
The current single release from the album, though this is a very catchy song, this isn't my favourite. I found the lyrics a bit contrived, such as "I've got feathers in my hair / I get down to beat poetry."
This is the closest thing this album has to a pop track and, interestingly, as a result it almost doesn't seem to belong with the rest of the tracks. Yet it is a song I've been humming ever since I heard it so Lana must've known what she was doing when she kept this on the track list.
Track Five: West Coast
One of the best songs on the album sees Lana Del Rey revisit a familiar subject - the glamour of Hollywood and their starlets. And how much she wants that too. The song has a sinister atmosphere as Del Rey sings low in her register "Down on the West Coast they got a sayin' / if you're not drinkin' then you're not playin'" over drums and the strumming of a lone electric guitar.
Track Six: Sad Girl
The opening lyric "Being a mistress on the side/ it might not appeal to fools like you" shows Lana unrepentant for her taking of married men - and it's pretty clear what she thinks of women who judge her. No wonder feminism doesn't interest her!
Reminiscent of Portishead in its production, this would stand out if the other tracks were more varied. As they're not, this does fade into the background a bit.
Track Seven: Pretty When You Cry
As does this track too. A maudlin tale of a woman loving a man who loves his drugs more than her. A pretty enough track that suits the mood of the album perfectly though it doesn't stand out as an individual piece.
Track Eight: Money Power Glory
Luckily the string of tracks you'll probably skip is broken here with a run of some amazing tracks. Sung almost as a hymn, Money Power Glory sees Lana abandoning God for her lust of fame. Unapologetic and deliberate, the defeated hum-drum existence of Video Games is replaced with explicit ambition. "I want money and all your power, all your glory/ Hallelujah, I wanna take you for all that you got."
This is a mission statement presented with no shame. One of the stand-out tracks on the album.
Track Nine: Fucked My Way Up to the Top
And Lana continues on without remorse. The title of the track says it all. The doe-eyed pity-me sentiment of the girl-next-door in This is What Makes Us Girls is gone. Yes, the song declares, she may have fucked her way to the top but when Lana spits out "This is my show" we are under no illusions about who's in control.
She's hard, heartless and she doesn't care whether you love her or hate her as she's now her own best cheerleader. "Go, Baby Go, Go! Go! Go! Go! Go" she sings out. An amazing track.
Track Ten: Old Money
The previous two tracks had seen the pace pick up a little but here it returns to its almost tranquillised state. But don't be tempted to skip the track as though this is very slow, it's a beautiful, wistful and bittersweet song about lost youth. "Those summer nights seem long ago/ And so is the girl you used to call/ The Queen of New York City."
This is a song that shows the crack in the cool exterior and plucks the heartstrings.
Track Eleven: The Other Woman
This is the closing track on the standard version of the album and it's an interesting ending point as, much like Old Money, this is a poignantly sad song. For you see, the other woman in the song - the mistress - is Lana.
All the defiance of the other tracks is set aside and what is left is profound loneliness and vulnerability. "The other woman will never have his love to keep / And as the years go by the other woman / Will spend her life alone." It's a song that sees Lana (character or artist?) reconciling herself to the repercussions of the life she has chosen.
Track Twelve: Black Beauty
Setting aside the (no doubt, deliberate) double-meaning for drugs, the black beauty in this song refers to the black cloud of depression and self-destruction that looms over Lana's lover. "You have no room for light / Love is lost on you." It's a lovely little song but not one of the most memorable moments on an album that has a lot of this sentiment.
Track Thirteen: Guns and Roses
I can't help feeling this title plays a little on Lana's fling with Axl Rose but, like Black Beauty, there's not much more to this song than it's title's double meaning. Its maudlin sentiment fits with the album but you can see how this is a bonus track rather than on the main album. There are more memorable songs elsewhere.
Track Fourteen: Florida Kilos
Now this song stands out a mile because, with its calypso sway and summer sound, this track sounds almost, well, happy, which probably explains why it's a bonus track.
This is a great song but I don't think this means you'll be hearing this on the radio. Lyrics such as "White lines, pretty daddy, go ski it / You snort it like a champ, like the winter we're not in" means it's unlikely to make the Radio 1 approved playlist anytime soon. Already on my summer playlist though.
Track Fifteen: Is This Happiness
But the smiles don't last and instead the album closes with an intriguing question from Lana to herself - "Is this happiness?" A question she asks again and again over a piano accompaniment. You're left with the impression that Lana knows there is no happy ending at the end of a life lived like this. One can only hope there is a lot of character rather than biography in these lyrics.
Far darker than Born to Die, Ultraviolence is not a conventional pop album. At times the pace of the album is so slow it feels as if you're being sedated. Only a couple of the tracks even brush mid-tempo. But combined with these angry lyrics of alienation, self-deceit and dark ambition, it makes for an intriguing change in a pop market saturated with instantly disposable pop songs.
Vocally and lyrically, it's also an accomplished piece of work that sees Lana Del Rey really develop her profound talents.
In comparison with her peers, Lana Del Rey stands out a mile. She's not looking for empathy or a group hug. At times on Ultraviolence it seems Lana really wants you to hate her. It's a very defiant unapologetic album. And not a single radio-friendly track to be heard.
It's brave, intense and I love it.
Note: Track listing above is for the iTunes bonus tracks version.