Music Review: Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, Track By Track

For another good review of the album, though not track-by-track, you might enjoy Times’ review. I certainly did- it summed up my feelings mostly perfectly, by tying it in with some of the nostalgia that is coming to dominate our culture, and looking at the ways we use it as a shorthand to avoid exploring alternate ideas.

“I keep looking deeper into Ultraviolence because I want to understand what Del Rey is trying to understand. I want to know why the culture around me keeps grasping at past emblems — why advertising for 40-year-old movies still decorates college dorm rooms, why I can make my iPhone look like a Polaroid, why 90,000 people sing along to roots rock at Bonnaroo. I want to know why we reuse these tropes uncritically, reaching for analog without asking what gives it power. Lana Del Rey looks at the imagery we keep and tries to find what’s missing in it. What do we avoid looking at when we buy pictures of Marilyn Monroe, not thinking of why Norma Jeane Mortenson died so young? Whose stories do we allow to remain subdued?”

The stories in Ultraviolence are the ones you’d never expect to hear about any of the art from Lana’s chosen time periods. Mistresses, sugar babies, abuse victims, partners supporting someone through substance abuse or depression. They present a surprisingly complex view of a lot of characters whose stories we only ever heard told in black and white polars, or from the perspective of people outside the agents of the story, like Daisy, in The Great Gatsby, or the sisters from The Virgin Suicides. Women who cheat=bad. Anyone doing drugs=bad. Women capitalizing on the commodity of their sexuality=bad.

Ultraviolence is very sparsely produced, by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. It’s a different sound for him, but one that I like. Each song is written from a particular character, and the stories are highly screwed up and dysfunctional. Some of them are frankly hard to listen to, because there’s such a tangible sense of desperation.

Now, Ultraviolence is pretty darn different from Born To Die, and is perhaps closer to Lana’s earlier works, as Lizzie Grant or May Jailer. If you want the manic dancey tragic-pop of Off To The Races or Serial Killer, or the lush, overpowering strings of Born To Die or Video Games, you probably won’t like Ultraviolence.

The lyrical structure of Ultraviolence lies closer to artists like Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield than it does to Born To Die. It’s a change, but one that really emphasizes the storytelling in the songs.

There’s a handful of exclusive tracks for various retailers. I’m working off the album I purchased from Amazon, though, so keep that in mind regarding the track list.

Here’s my thoughts on the album, song by song.

Cruel World-  A very loosely structured song following a classic-Lana-esque woman getting back in the game after kicking a horrible partner to the curb. It’s very bluesy, but Lana’s vocals cycle between sadness at the death of the relationship, elation at her newfound freedom, amusement at her own train-wreck of a life, and a sort of forced euphoria as she convinces herself that she did the right thing… It’s a complex, almost  improvisational stream-of-consciousness style, emphasized by the sparseness of the drums, really more there as a metronome than as a planned and managed part of the instrumentation.

Ultraviolence- Almost like Born To Die era Lana, but a bit more reverb-y. Ultraviolence is one of the harder tracks to listen to, as it follows a woman in an abusive relationship (Or, metaphorically, could be about alcoholism, and her relationship with liquor.) This isn’t the “Why do they stay?” kind of Lifetime-movie trauma-fest, but a love song that references everything from Lolita, to Greek mythology, and that looks at both her character’s rage, as well as the psychological dependence on her partner that convinces her that even his negative attentions should be hers. “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” That’s a hard line to hear without some sort of gut reaction, even if it is a reference to The Crystals’ girl-pop song He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss.

I can totally understand why some people would look at this song and say it glorifies domestic violence. My personal take is that it’s a pretty damn accurate look at that mindset. I’ve lived through more than a few of those relationships myself, and hearing it, I flashed back to my own fear and alienation while convincing myself that the bruises I was hiding were okay. My personal view is that presenting only triumphant happy endings in abuse stories marginalizes the struggles of people who are unable to leave the relationship, and paints all people who stay with an abusive partner as being incomprehensible, irrational, or an equal partner in their torment. Or worse yet, it can convince the battered person that they’re just unsave-able- that there’s no point in reaching for help, because that can never be their story.

The more that we understand the many conflicting elements that can keep a person in that kind of abusive partnership, the better we can understand them, support them, and, if need be, help them to find resources that may help them to get away.

Shades of Cool- A woman reconciles herself with staying with a drug addicted partner. Lush, jazzy instrumentations, that striking soprano chorus… Shades of Cool is a slow dance, with his hands on your bum.  This song is a gentle tragedy, and looks at a very precarious kind of normalcy for people in that situation. The lyrics cycle through everything from helplessness, admiration, a tangible sense of betrayal at being shut out of her partner’s life.

Brooklyn Baby- Either a fluffy ditty about Lana’s favorite interests, or a snarky take-down of hipster culture, depending who you listen to. Personally, I don’t care which. I love the confidence in the lyrics, the seductive base and the way it contrasts with her soprano vocals, with the strings in between so heavily muted.

West Coast- This song has a creepy kind of momentum. The first time I heard it, prior to the album’s release, I was confused. The reverb daze, and the somewhat disconnected style of the verses, interspersed with the desperation of the chorus… This song shifts moods and styles several times. It can alternately read as improvisational and disjointed. But it’s thrilling either way. My man says “Too much reverb,” but I say, “It makes me feel drunk, in a good way.”

Sad Girl- Opening with a combination of organ and electric guitar, this song has the feel of a seedy Vegas chapel. It’s the first of Lana’s Other Woman stories, following a mistress waiting for her lover. It carries a sense of isolation and resignation that emphasizes the lilt to the rhythm, and the simplicity of the lyrics. “I’m his honey on the side, honey on the side, I’m a sad, sad, girl.”

Pretty When I Cry- For some reason, this song disturbed me more than Ultraviolence. Lana’s loose, breathy vocals and the sparse guitar line in the opening led me to feel like I may well have been listening to her directly post-tears. And the sentiment in the chorus is a disturbing one to identify with… “I’ll wait for you babe, that’s all I do, babe, you don’t come through, babe, you never do… cuz I’m pretty when I cry.” The internalized anguish, leading to her disconnect from her own emotional state, the almost triumph as she evaluates her tears as a positive… It’s jarring.

Money, Power, Glory- A surprisingly happy song, with sweeping orchestral instrumentation, and again, the organ, as a sugar-baby swears she’ll take him for all that he’s got. Definitely not a heroine we’re used to hearing, but it’s a surprisingly nuanced look at the ways in which the relationship fails her, and the reasons she grasps for things- money, power, glory- to fulfil her, because it never will. Money, Power, Glory has some of the instrumentation and melodic structure of a hymn, which contracts directly with the lyrics, including a line about her disillusionment with a man who talks about god.

Fucked My Way Up To The Top- I had high hopes for this song, with a name like that. In general, it’s not one of my favorites on the album, but it’s another striking example of a character using her sexuality to get her things that she couldn’t obtain any other way. And the confidence in the lyrics, “Fucked my way up to the top, this is my show, go baby go,” contrasts very heavily with the minor and somewhat discordant melody. She’s conflicted, grasping for the joy of the sex, the joy of being where she wants to be, and trying to convince herself that it was worth it.

Old Money- One of my least favorites on the album. Melodically, it just doesn’t resonate with me, even though the lyrics of unrequited or outgrown love are quite touching. Old Money feels like a continuation of Young and Beautiful, her contribution to The Great Gatsby‘s soundtrack, but it lacks some of the melodic poignance, to my eyes anyways. Lana’s world-weary voice as she reflects on her power no longer being in her beauty, and the insecurity that places, on whether she’ll still be enough for the vague love-interest we’re give in the song… It’s quite pretty.

The Other Woman- A jazz standard, somewhat repurposed. A boozy, jazz hall dancy little number with some beautiful vocal embellishments. The duality of this one is gorgeous, as it contrasts two stories: the lonely wife reflecting on her own inadequacy compared to the other woman, and the other woman’s isolation and lack of connection. The only party in this song whose agency is implied is the man loving both of these women. But it still has a level of understanding you don’t usually see in these narratives. It’s sad, and you can easily imagine both women listening to it over a pint, while their shared partner is out of town on a business trip.

Black Beauty- From my understanding, this is technically an oldie-but-goodie from Lana’s backlist. She tries to nurse her partner through depression. It’s a little sad, but also carries a profoundly sincere perception of beauty, despite the unhappy context.

Guns And Roses- This is not the only song Lana has written riffing off Guns And Roses, and her love of the band. Girl’s got her influences. This one comes across like a slow, dreamy love-note. Technically there’s a story in it, as near as I can tell, her realizing she can’t contain a truly wild man, but tagging along for the ride anyways. It’s pretty, but not standout.

Florida Kilos- A surprisingly peppy ditty about drug smuggling and adoration of the bad boy. Reminds me greatly of classic Lizzie Grant, despite the extra reverb to her vocals that is totally in line with the overall production of the album.

Maybe it’s just personal stuff hitting me hard right now, but this album walloped me like a punch to the girly-balls. I’ve been listening to it nonstop for days, and I’m still floored. It’s not the album that I hoped for, when I heard she had another one coming, but in many ways, I think it’s better. The last time an album moved me this deeply, it was Lykke Li’s I Never Learn, but before that, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009, for Carina Round’s Things You Should Know. The first time I heard Carina’s Do You, I dropped a plate, burst into tears, and couldn’t listen to another song for three weeks.

Now, I do miss Lana’s flirtation with trip hop- I love trip hop, and it’s been a while since I found many artists working extensively with it, though I have high hopes for Doja Cat after So High. Hopefully Lana’ll come back to it at some point. But the stories in Ultraviolence are a beautiful exploration of tragedies and isolation, presented moment by moment like a slow motion explosion. Hearing the album, I want to give her a hug, and have us hold each other while we cry.