Since the birth of Elizabeth Grant’s musical persona Lana Del Rey, her music has been defined by a certain melancholia. Not surprisingly, her new album “Ultraviolence” is similarly steeped in despair, and in contrast with the heavily produced and sometimes jarring major-label debut “Born to Die,” her followup reaches a new level of sincerity. The album triumphs in its ability to remain musically and thematically coherent while avoiding monotony. At times, the relentlessly layered and habitually fuzzy vocals obscure the beauty of the songs in an almost drug-like haze; however, luckily, Lana makes these moments of opacity bearable through the sheer emotional impact of “Ultraviolence.”
The progression of the album shows a slow but definitive descent into dejection: on the first track, “Cruel World,” Lana sings, albeit rather unconvincingly, “I’m finally happy now,” and by the end of the album she finds herself explaining her role as a mistress in the old-timey “The Other Woman.” Naturally, “Ultraviolence” starts familiar and catchy but quickly becomes emotive, a welcome change for Lana. Tracks like “Brooklyn Baby” sit comfortably in the catchier half of the album. While the verses feature clean, sweet vocals and unobtrusive guitar, Lana erupts from an atmospheric pre-chorus into a refrain, accompanied by much fuller instrumentation, using stylish vocal breaks, and heading into her upper register as she croons that her “jazz collection’s rare.” Other lyrics on this track, like “I’ve got feathers in my hair / I get down to beat poetry,” are an amusing nod to hipster subculture, though it is difficult to discern whether it comes from sarcasm or candor.
Likewise, the bonus track “Florida Kilos” contains lyrics ambiguous in their intent. The absurdity ranges from “Guns in the summertime / drink a Cherry Cola lime” to “All the Floridians like / Yayo, yayo, yayo.” Whether these winsomely awkward lines come from a place of self-awareness or not is hard to say. In either case, they provide a small and needed hint of conviviality, only serving to endear her further to the listener.
Lana has established a sad-yet-catchy niche for herself with both “Born to Die” and parts of “Ultraviolence,” and she fares auspiciously when the album takes a hard right turn into somberness with “Old Money.” The verses play with the melody from Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” (also made popular by Andy Williams as “A Time for Us”), and the track similarly focuses on a damned relationship. The lyrical content is both whimsical and romantic: “Blue hydrangea, cold cash divine, / Cashmere, cologne, and white sunshine.” With the exception of the chorus, this track is home to the most unobstructed vocals on the album, which, in combination with a triumphant return of violins, make the line “And if you call... I’ll come” one of the most heartrending moments on “Ultraviolence.”
The only real hitch that Lana runs into is the fogginess of the middle section of the album. Although individually, the songs are well-crafted and beautifully sullen, the restrained production that gives “Ultraviolence” its distinctive flavor also tends to make the album drag its feet. Luckily, most of the songs have at least one notable feature going for them, including a distorted electric guitar riff in “Money Power Glory” and descriptions of Lana’s sexual takeover in the not-misleading “I Fucked My Way Up to the Top.” Although the album feels slow regardless of these attempts at adding intrigue, the individual character of the songs ensures that “Ultraviolence” is never repetitive.
As a pop artist, Lana Del Rey has accomplished something significant with this release. She clearly was not primarily concerned with commercial viability, but instead pursued the picturesque melancholy that characterizes her artistic vision. Don’t expect any radio play or high-charting singles (unless the remixer of “Summertime Sadness” strikes again), but with such steadfast loyalty to her aesthetic, it doesn’t look like Lana will be losing any of her frenzied fan base, either.
—Staff writer Ahmee Marshall-Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.