UltraviolenceBorn to Die” was an ultimately deceitful album as it was based on the promise that was “Video Games”. Heard only six months before the album debuted and accompanied by the not-quite-equally but still utterly beguiling “Blue Jeans”, these were surely a tantalisingly small taste of what was to come. Thoroughly retrofit, other-worldly and desolate songs with melodies that made you stop what you were doing. “Born to Die”was still a good album but is not the one that many craved or expected and it divided opinion sharply, featuring Del Rey rapping about highly-caffeinated fizzy drinks, repetitive hip hop sounds and samples and a large count of songs that could have just as easily been Britney/Gaga/Rihanna. It was dominated by a production style that can best be described as bombastic and cynical. It also sold in excess of seven million copies and it can safely be presumed that with this came a clout that allowed Del Rey and her choice of producers to finally deliver on that initial promise, as least partially. “Ultraviolence” is the sound of an artist, I suspect, being freed up to fulfil their own creative desires; that sound is both very different from what came before and also very much the same.  

Cruel World” opens the album in a grandiose and gloating fashion- at nearly 7 minutes long it declares its own riskiness loudly and with an obvious pride. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has, along with Del Rey, decided the sonic template; he produced the majority of the album, and it is represented in full here and is adhered to pretty much throughout. Out go the r’n’b beats, trip-hop,  the clattering metallic percussion and the sugared spoken-song rhymes  to be replaced by live drums, guitars with serious intent and a dazed and strung out Del Rey yowling ‘you’re fucking crazy – you’re crazy for me’. Leading to her best melody second only to “Video Games”, “Ultraviolence  is a song that could have come at any point during her discography and would be considered one that encapsulates her ability to pull you close and watch the collision. Its controversy is ridiculous and highly theatrical but the beauty is undeniable. “Shades of Cool” is, again, a gorgeous swooping waltz with a falsetto chorus and a line in haughty cattiness that confirms Del Rey’s refusal to play the feminist role in a way that has and will alienate many. The guitars deliriously shred the languid mood to pieces in the final minutes of the song and it’s her best attempt at a Bond theme thus far.

The initially deceptively empty and messy sounding “West Coast” is in many ways “Ultraviolence”’s biggest triumph. As the first piece of music heard from the album it threw many with its refusal to stick to a steady tempo – slowing down dramatically in the chorus only to speed up again- and vocals that during the verses were tight and gulped. It wasn’t the Lana Del Rey we were used to hearing and quite possibly one we didn’t like but repeated listens reveal a thrillingly compact and almost perversely catchy pop song that confirmed that this time around, she wasn’t interested in an easy win. “Brooklyn Baby” is the album’s only concession to light. A track that twirls and revels in a 1960’s, a near Saint Etienne folk-pop confection that has a depth and warmth that isn’t evident at first listen – another slow burner in an album that has many. “Brooklyn Baby” does however highlight a sticking point with Del Rey and that is not her ability as a performer, she sounds far more confident and poised on this album than the last, but her abilities as a song writer. It’s not clear whether the song is bemoaning current-day hipsters or an actual celebration of the beat movement of that time, either way the writing is hackneyed and clunky to the point where it seems to be intentional but then again, I suspect not.

Daddies, diamonds, death, drugs (lots and lots of drugs) and little red dresses have all been referred to by the time we reach the album’s half way point but because of the exceptionally strong songs and performances they don’t grate in the way that they could have done. The Lana Del Rey key-words remain, her stock phrases that have been there from the beginning but still, somehow, have allowed her to create new music without it becoming ludicrous. Because of the baggy and lifeless combination of “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry” ( those titles!) being stuck together in the middle of the album though, this aspect of the Lana Del Rey  persona  – wronged woman,  sad woman, loves her men bad woman – ultimately and inevitably becomes boring. The venomous “Fucked my Way Up to the Top” and almost brilliant “Money Power Glory” which is let down only by a repetitive and not fully realised chorus, restores some of the energy but it never quite reaches the highs of its first half.

“Ultraviolence” has just about secured Lana Del Rey’s status as An Artist to be Taken Seriously, irritating to many maybe but difficult to deny or avoid given the force at which her vision here takes its form. It’s not an easy album on any level – sonically, lyrically or vocally and the playfulness that littered “Born to Die” has all but evaporated and is replaced by a looser, insidious malaise and increasing desperation which only very occasionally is flushed out by a crystalline piano ballad ( the very lovely “Old Money”) or a laughed-out-loud line. It’s hard to say whether the closing track, a cover version of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman”, is a ridiculously on-the-nose piss-take on the Del Rey construction or the perfect finale for a pop star whose talent has been to locate something that has been dormant for some time, an ability to transcend cultural dictates and become an individual. Either way it doesn’t really matter, there is music here to daydream deeply to and when done, return to life which will never be as dangerous, sick and romantic as the world that Del Rey has created here. That is indeed, quite a talent.  

Product DetailsThis collection of mainly new songs is part of the Paradise edition (reissue) of Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” album released earlier this year. When I reviewed this album in January I wrote with disappointment about how, after the initial promise of the incredible “Video Games”, the album was samey and, well, a bit dull. I’m pleased to say that these 8 songs come closer to fulfilling the decaying American dream world aesthetic that she has been flirting with since her invention of Lana Del Rey.

The clunky themes that tended to weigh down “Born To Die” still feature in every track here (the pale moonlight, daddies, diamonds, party dresses, drugs, drinks, Elvis and of course death) but with very subtle shading here and there they become less cumbersome as the massive sweep and power of the music and Del Rey’s performance itself utterly convince and take over. Much of this, I’m guessing, is down to a change in producers; Emile Haynie who was in charge of the majority of the original album only has 2 co-productions here and subsequently the noisy but hollow hip hop influence is less obvious. Two brilliant cases in point are the Rick Rubin-produced first single “Ride” and the Rick Nowels-helmed “American”. Both of these feature impassioned vocals (particularly “Ride” with Lana almost howling the ‘I’m sick and tired of feeling fucking crazy’ line) and a warmth and Americana nostalgia that, although not as other worldly as “Video Games”, signifies a move towards something more substantial and moving. “Bel Air” is a further progression sonically with the piano keeping a waltz time,  Del Rey seeing gargoyles and a sample of a noisy kids playground (a trick used with more subtlety by Fiona Apple a couple of months back); it defines the concept of ‘cinematic’ music and is quite beautiful.

The thundering “Gods and Monsters” is the most self possessed vocal performance here and lyrically either the most irritating or Meta depending on how much the Del Rey mythology/invention convinces you, but it is hard to deny its power; ‘In the land of Gods and Monsters, I was an angel, looking to get fucked hard. Like a groupie incognito, posing as a real singer; life imitates Art’. This may just be Lana getting her own back on her record label after the original lyrics of “Born To Die” were changed from ‘fuck me hard in the pouring rain’ to ‘kiss me hard’; who knows. Maybe she goes a little too far in her revenge with “Cola” though, lyrics like ‘my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola’ are just embarrassingly and pointlessly attention-seeking (after “Diet Mountain Dew”, her second unsuccessful attempt at a song referencing popular carbonated beverages) and “Body Electric” neatly collects all her key phrases in one song bordering on self-parody and is one of the few mis-steps here.

Yayo” is an oddity, originally featured on Lizzie Grant’s now-withdrawn debut album this has been re-recorded as a seemingly structureless song (it does in fact have a definite structure) with Del Rey amping up her bleary-eyed, drugged-out Monroe persona; it doesn’t really work as well as the original recording, oddly enough, but it is a brave decision to introduce something less obvious. “Blue Velvet” is a great cover and my goodness this could have been disastrous; brilliant retro strings burst in before the whole things plunges into Prince-like slow motion beats and Lana does her best Isabella Rossellini impersonation.  It’s fascinating to think that so many listeners will have never heard the original, this version being their first exposure to this truly iconic song.

So if you cherry pick from the original album (“Radio”, “Without You”, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” for starters) and lose 1 or 2 tracks from this new batch you actually do end up with one of the best and most original pop albums of the year. After initially threatening to retire musically and work in the film business, Lana Del Rey has confirmed that a second album (third if you include this) will be released and in describing her vision for it (stacked up a capellas, a full orchestra and lots of space apparently) she appears to be someone who fully understands the artistry (or lack of, depending on your view point!) of what they’re doing. But once she has collaborated with David Lynch, the definitive reference point of all of her work, then I for one will be satisfied and she can then put her Audrey Horne, red saddle shoes away in relative peace.