I'm worried about Lana Del Rey. In an interview with The Guardian published last week, the singer-songwriter stated bluntly: "I wish I was dead already."
That admission would be enough to warrant alarm, but it's more than alarming coming from someone like Lana Del Rey — whose premier album, Born to Die
, luxuriated in thematics of dissipation, darkness, doom in love and in life. But if her CinemaScope romanticization of self-destruction was ever sexy or enticing, it seems to have metastasized into something else. Something less like a daydream, something genuinely hopeless. Which is frightening.
So I'm left puzzled and anxious. I re-watch this video of her from 2010
when she was still Lizzy Grant, not-yet-Lana, blonde and unknown, a year before the self-released "Video Games" saw internet fame pluck her from the New York club singer ranks. Looking at this past incarnation, I want success for her. She seems shyer, more fragile, yearning for a break, deserved of fame, because you'd think it would mean some security for her. Now, two years after Born to Die
and intense (mostly derisive, critical) media scrutiny, she is, by her own admission, tired. Of what? "Everything." Music-making included.
And I'm puzzled, and feeling guilty, because Ultraviolence
is probably the most cohesive, expertly realized album she's presented, and if she stops now then it means that she's stopping short of real greatness. And, if only in part, we would have ourselves to blame. We really need to be less callous with our pop stars. (Next month marks the third anniversary of Amy Winehouse's death.)
Lana's first two endeavors vacillated between multiple sounds, shuffling awkwardly between pseudo-gangster pop and melodramatic orchestration. Born to Die
couldn't seem to decide exactly how it wanted to stage itself: dying in a gutter in Paris, or gunned down at a racetrack, or overdosed on barbiturates in a suite at the Chateau Marmont. Ultraviolence
sees Lana refined. She hasn't abandoned the image she's worn thus far — she remains tragedienne priestess to American men and old money — but with the help of producer Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys), the sound of her latest album comes out like a diamond cut with a chainsaw, refined but ragged, inevitably dulled in places, but pumped-up and doubled-over in decadence.
The album begins with "Cruel World," a song unlike anything she's made thus far, as the singer's vocals, shuddering like heat off the floor of a desert, enter astride distant, psychedelic guitars and resounding percussion. Then it proceeds into the titular track, "Ultraviolence," the fervent heat of its prelude now cooled to a balletic smolder as Del Rey renders signature, oft-criticized man-worship in cultish terms that cant help but feel like a jab at detractors when she sings, siren-like, "He hit me and it felt like a kiss." The subsequent "Shades of Cool" takes the still-red-hot brand with which the album conducts its first two songs and plunges it abruptly into ice water, eventually dissolving into power guitar chaos worthy of any spy thriller bedroom scene (or defenestration.)
And then "Brooklyn Baby" returns us to the awkward, exaggerated fantasies of Born to Die.
It's Lana being Lana — playing sonic dress-up. It's a sly self-effacement, maybe, hopefully. It sounds neat enough, with instrumentals that revolve pleasingly, like a porch swing, but it's hard to take seriously when she sings, "I get down to Beat poetry / And my jazz collections rare / I can play most anything / I'm a Brooklyn baby." It probably wouldn't have been a great song, even if Lou Reed had not died the day they were meant to record the would-be duet together.
The rest of the album follows a similar, sometimes disappointing vein. The mostly forgettable "West Coast." The self-explanatory "Sad Girl." From "Pretty When You Cry" to "Old Money," Ultraviolence
busies its (rather large) middle-region with a lot of filler. But it is filler with purpose. They're all songs that seem to be meant to extend a hyperbole that Lana's made of herself. Like the antagonism towards critics that we see in "Ultraviolence," these songs feel like Lana playing into their criticism, getting revenge by sighing orgasmically into a fur made of needles fired at her ever since her debut. Playing acidic and sweet, sad and sassy, pleading with her man and throwing manicured punches at faceless enemies, detractors, romantic competition. On "Fucked My Way up to the Top": "I'm a dragon, you're a whore / Don't even know what you're good for."
In its final moments, Ultraviolence
rediscovers its excellence. "The Other Woman" and its jazzy, mournful slow-dance. The cinematic "Black Beauty." And the album's sole-single, bonus Deluxe edition track "Florida Kilos," which sees the singer surfacing from her glacial lower register to soar back into the affected, hyper-pop notes of her demo days for a last cut, full of Floridian coke-runner sunshine. This third album isn't perfect, but it is very good. The best she's made. It makes up for its slower moments with book-ending handfuls of brilliance. It showcases enormous growth on Del Rey's part, and an ideal artistic partner in Auerbach.
I hope that it isn't wasted on us. And I hope earnestly that she feels better soon.
You can buy Ultraviolence on iTunes
, and you can watch the video for "Shades of Cool" below.