Lana Del Rey finds feminism far less interesting than intergalactic exploration; she kind of wishes she were dead already; and, according to her latest album, Ultraviolence, she fucked her way up to the top. She’s an artist who is easy to hate, and has gotten perhaps more than her fair share of criticism in the past few years, directed both at her music itself and at the dramatic rebranding that took place at the beginning of her career, transforming her from the upbeat, platinum blonde Lizzy Grant into the sultry, strung-out beauty queen who became famous singing “you and I, we were born to die.”
The character of Lana Del Rey took form in her 2012 album Born to Die, and this persona truly comes into its own in Ultraviolence, becoming all the more steeped in melodrama and heartbreak. This album is less radio-friendly than Born to Die: gone is the soaring, easy-listening experience of “Summertime Sadness,” replaced by long, melancholic ballads that at times seem to poke fun at the media criticism Del Rey has received. She toes the line between self-expression and self-parody; though at times the album veers too far toward the latter, Ultraviolence is a satisfying and intriguing follow-up for fans of the less-overplayed tracks on Born to Die.
The album kicks off astonishingly well. LDR took the risk of putting her lengthiest, most leisurely song first, and the effect is something of a dare: if you don’t like this mellow ballad (in which she croons, “Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free/ You’re dancing circles around me/ You’re fucking crazy”), you might as well stop listening now. The now-cliché that is Del Rey in her “little red party dress” is tempered by hazy, lazy melodies, which serve as a valuable reminder that while some might find her persona and values despicable, her musical talent is undeniable.
Lana continues to push her critics’ buttons in the title track, “Ultraviolence,” quoting The Crystals’ song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” This is not the first time the singer has referenced abuse in her lyrics, yet here the theme is more pronounced than ever. In romantic, almost nostalgic verses, Del Rey reflects on an abusive relationship, in which “He hurt me but it felt like true love/[He] taught me that/Loving him was never enough.” Haunting harmonies aside, the song romanticizes abuse in much of the same, problematic way in which Del Rey, in her June 2014 Guardian interview, romanticized death. It’s provocative, if not insensitive, and bound to turn off more than a few listeners paying attention to the words.
“West Coast,” the fifth track, marks a refreshing shift from the uniformly balladic songs preceding it. Released in April as a single, this song is perhaps most reminiscent of the Lana Del Rey we got to know in Born to Die. It tantalizes with its build, releasing into an up-tempo pre-chorus before slowing way down as Lana sings, “Ooh, baby, ooh, baby, I’m in love.”
Things take a turn for the tiresome in the following track, “Sad Girl,” in which Lana laments, “I’m a sad girl, I’m a sad girl / I’m a bad girl, I’m a bad girl.” Here’s the thing: we already know this. She’s sad. She’s bad. She smokes cigarettes and drinks bourbon while wearing red party dresses and lusting after malicious lovers. There’s really no need to devote a whole song to it. Show, Lana, don’t tell.
This self-parody, intentional or not—and, for the most part, it seems not—continues for the next few songs, which reveal that LDR is pretty when she cries; she wants money, power, and glory; and she fucked her way up to the top (“go, baby, go”).
If Lana veers into spoof halfway through the album, she more than redeems herself in “Old Money,” the second-to-last track on the non-deluxe edition. Her hallmark overuse of adjectives stops after the first verse—“Blue hydrangea, cold cash divine/ Cashmere, cologne, and white sunshine/ Red racing cars, Sunset and Vine”—and from there, the song spirals into a plaintive story of unrequited or forgotten love. And if anyone had doubts about whether LDR was serious when she told The Fader that she finds feminism “just not an interesting concept,” she sets them straight when she vows, “If you send for me you know I’ll come/And if you call for me you know I’ll run.” It is perhaps not the most empowering message to dissipate, but the words, sung softly over minimal instrumentals, are heartbreakingly beautiful.
Those set in their hatred of Lana Del Rey are unlikely to have their opinions changed by Ultraviolence. She turned herself into a near-caricature, but a caricature set over swelling melodies and haunting vocals. At times she goes too far, making the music almost comical in its Lana Del Rey-ness, but she compensates for these moments with the album’s standout tracks, which confirm that, critics be damned, Lana isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.