When Lana Del Rey emerged on the scene in 2011 with the release of ‘Video Games’ and its grainy, self-made video, she was hailed as the next pop critical darling. With her melancholic melodies, crisp hip-hop beats and a never ending dedication to her bad daddy and her little red dress, it was all going rather well.
Then, it all unraveled. Her ‘authenticity’ as an artist was called into question after it was revealed Lana Del Rey was the alter-ego of Lizzie Grant, whose father had helped to fund her previous soirÃ©es into dark indie-pop. Never mind the fact that acts such as Elton John, Lady Gaga, Cher and Bob Dylan have all shed their normality for a music alter-ego. There was a particularly shaky performance on Saturday Night Live. The critical backlash was quite something to behold, even though Del Rey’s major label (and excellent) debut LP, Born To Die, has now sold excess of 7 million copies.
But that was all two years ago. Since then, Lana’s released a ‘farewell’ project to the Born To Die era: the hauntingly poetic short film Tropico, recorded the main single for the Great Gatsby soundtrack and scaled the US Top 10 with a raved-up re-mix. And, if it wasn’t quite clear before, Lana doesn’t bow down easily and the release of her second album, Ultraviolence, sees her veering off into darker paths than ever before.
The record, firstly, obviously feels like a direct attack on the Del Rey nay-sayers. Tracks like ‘Brooklyn Baby’ and ‘F***** My Way To The Top’ parody the whole construction of Lana Del Rey and Lana’s never felt quite so cutting or sarcastic. Gone are the swaggering hip-hop beats and wistful Coney Island Queen half-rap vocals. For Ultraviolence, Lana’s packed up her guitar and has hit the open road.
If Born To Die was the Queen of Coney Island in her element swaggering in New York City, in Ultraviolence Lana’s abdicated the throne and hit the highway to the West Coast. Musically, Ultraviolence strips the construction of Lana Del Rey to the core; gone are Emile Haynie‘s swooping orchestral choruses and broken-down neo-noir hip-hop. Mostly under the helm of the Black Keys guitarist Dan Auberbach, the guitar – rough, rockier, un-tamed – is Lana’s main guide down this open road. It makes for a much more stripped-down experience, as if Lana’s exorcised her previous identity to the bare basics. Thematically and lyrically, however, Lana Del Rey is still Lana Del Rey; her man – bad to the bone and don’t you love it – remains the solid focus of much of the album. Yet, whilst Born To Die is a much more melancholic celebration of Lana Del Rey and her attachment to her man, there’s a dark heart beating at the core on Ultraviolence. The guitars hint at an ominous, un-spoken horror deep within Lana’s relationship, best summed up by the tragically beautiful title-track and its most insightful lyric; ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss.’
In this society now obsessed with the concept of feminism and a defiance against women being pulled back into stereotypical norms, the theme of domestic abuse – especially when the abusee seems to have romanticised the very action – is controversial to say the least. But on repeat listens, when the hidden meanings of Lana’s song start to crawl out of the framework, her multi-layered vocals repeating the same word; ‘Ultraviolence‘ seem to signify that this is not so much a woman welcoming her domestic abuse, but someone who has rather been warped into believing that this violence is an outlet of love. This is not un-similar to the experience of Alex, the main character of A Clockwork Orange, the film in which the title Ultraviolence was coined. Of course, the main difference is that Alex is a rapist and a murderer who undergoes therapy in a dystopian society, whereas Lana Del Rey is a woman in a seemingly dystopian and destructive relationship, who clings onto these acts of violence against her as a sign of her man’s love, because she’s so desperate for the dream of true love to be real to her.
If the title track of the record is the song that exposes the dark, bruised heart amongst the songs of Ultraviolence, it’s the lead single, ‘West Coast’, which sees Lana leave her man for the bright lights of the West Coast and the freedom it entails. The hypnotic backing chord of the guitar drums itself into your head, a similar thought must have been going through Lana’s head when she finally escaped onto that open road with the dream of the West Coast in her mind.
Of course, this is only the fifth track on the 11 track album, and when she’s on the open road, Lana’s melancholic, defiant nature isn’t diminished on her travels to a better life. She seeks ‘Money, Power, Glory’ in a gloriously brilliant Greg Kurstin (who produced much of Lily Allen’s Sheezus) produced track and lands seemingly in the heart of the west coast in ‘F***** My Way To The Top’, where she taunts a stirrer who has, quite literally done that.
Ultimately, however, the ghost of Lana’s man haunts the rest of the record and it’s left to fade out on the melancholic tones of Lana’s cover of ‘The Other Woman’, a cover of the Jessie Mae Robinson song. Is Lana lamenting the loss of her man, and imagining the life of his ‘other woman’ as cold and empty? Is she talking about herself?
In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. Lana’s journey has come to an end. If she hasn’t totally escaped the Ultraviolence that has pursued her, she has by no means accepted it. The tone of the record suggests this is the mind of a woman knowing something is wrong and lets her instincts guide her back to the road, trying to find another home. The sparse, rockier production probably signifies a move in Lana Del Rey’s life. In the context of the album it would signify her moving on from her man, she’s stripped down to her core, trying to find another place to belong. But in the wider context of Lana Del Rey, the actual person, the entire album strips her of the persona she was so virulently hounded for. It’s not much of a re-invention, more of a re-birth.
And even through the winding road never ends, there’s no doubt Lana Del Rey will keep on travelling with her trusty red dress until she finds the home she truly deserves.
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