Review Summary: "To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit?"
Looking back at Lana Del Rey's accomplishments since the release of 'Born To Die', a few poignant issues with her music have come to light for many listeners, including myself. At times, moments of BTD were weighed down by the sheer lyrical melodrama they carried; 'Summertime Sadness' and 'Carmen' coming to mind immediately. In other areas, overtly simplistic and crass songwriting restricted the capacity for songs like 'Diet Mountain Dew' and 'National Anthem' from properly prevailing as the ambitious attempts of carving out a unique and likeable sound for Del Rey's rapidly growing audience. It is in the memory of these songs that many view Del Rey's status as a musician as mediocre at best and rooted so deeply in her character to hardly be taken seriously. However, from this Marmite-like album, songs such as 'Video Games' and 'Lucky Ones' emerged; displaying Del Rey's strong capability at producing songs with striking vocal performances and memorable, even emotive hooks. Taking her music with a pinch of salt and progressing through to the later EP 'Paradise', we could see a more developed sound to her music. Songs like 'Ride', 'Gods and Monsters' and 'Bel Air' showcasing a more mature and focused approach to songs, with her stylised persona boasting some impressive vocal performances over more established melodies that gave 'Paradise' a greater sense of variety and reflection upon lyrical themes and instrumentation. But the inevitable pop influence that was rife in 'Born To Die' crippled 'Yayo', 'American' and the absolutely absurd 'Cola' - leaving only a few diamonds in the rough of 'Paradise', yet hope for the future as well.
I'm happy to tell you that Del Rey has delivered upon that hope.
Having spent 2013 delving into the world of film, producing her own short film/EP combo 'Tropico' as well as 'Young And Beautiful' and 'Once Upon A Dream' for 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Maleficent' respectively, 'Ultraviolence' has been a little later than expected for many. From the very moment you hit play, the time taken appears to have been well spent by Del Rey gaining greater appreciation for instrumentation along with widening her own influences. This is best shown in songs such as 'Shades Of Cool', with its James Bond-esque lead guitar fantastically establishing mood; 'Old Money', hearkening back to the beautiful 'Video Games' with Del Rey's immersive and emotive vocals combined with a soft piano melody and even 'West Coast', despite its awfully invading synthesiser section. Very surprisingly, Del Rey is further allowing external instrumentation to become an integral part of her songs. As a consequence, structure has been drastically improved, not always escaping the inevitable 'Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Bridge - Extended Chorus' pattern, but disguising this pattern, where it appears, in a very satisfying and dynamic manner that gives the songs a very pleasant flow (something that many of Del Rey's previous songs simply did not have due to their overtly predictable nature). You'll hear more than a few guitar solos on this album, and when they do strike - they are soaked in the nostalgia that Del Rey is aiming for with 'Ultraviolence'. Reminiscent of 70s rock and the progression of popular American music at the time, the range is outstanding for Del Rey to have indulged in; resulting in some of the highlights of the album; the hypnotisingly psychedelic guitar flourishes on the title track, merging seamlessly with a no-longer dominant orchestra and Del Rey's siren-like vocals. Later on in 'Money Power Glory', soaked in reverb (much alike her vocals), the guitar wails out a tortured solo beneath the bridge, making much more of the opportunities that Del Rey often laid to waste in her previous releases. Maturity on this release is abundant and it is a very impressive thing to see after two releases of very similar content with only a slight inkling of progression into greater diversification at an unexpected scale for her genre and style.
Unfortunately, her appreciation for guitar and synthesiser to enable the mood she aims for, painting herself as an elegant singer of the 60s and 70s; results in the tempo for the entire album only picking up from a pace so slow that it practically makes the drums irrelevant in 'Brooklyn Baby' and '***ed My Way Up To The Top'. In the title track, it works to an almost ritualistic effect albeit elsewhere it promises little other than a mild base for the guitar to lead Del Rey through the song; emphasised by the elegant 'Pretty When You Cry' and Del Rey's retro-aspiring cover of Nina Simone's 'The Other Woman'. However, with the drums still serving their part with some grace and overall suitability; Del Rey sails through 'Ultraviolence' with a spectacularly diverse vocal performance. Opening track 'Cruel World' sees her soar from the moody, sobering vocal style of 'Ride' to delirious heights during the later choruses. The title track (I'm sorry for bringing it up again, I just love it so much) showcasing her capacity for incredibly delicate and beautiful vocal melodies to interweave with its backing music; resulting in a brilliant climax that captures the mood of the song fantastically. This euphoric nostalgia is perpetuated by 'Shades Of Cool's exquisite and angelic choruses (as well as its groovy guitar solo finale), the dizzying pitch of 'Money Power Glory's vocal melodies and the shadowy atmosphere of 'Sad Girl' of Del Rey's reverb-laden lyrical delivery. You really get a sense of effort from Del Rey to push the envelope of her genre by working on her music as a whole as opposed to leaving the instrumentation to work as a separate element to her vocals, ultimately resulting in some very satisfying, memorable and finely tuned performances from Del Rey.
But it's not all sunny in Del Rey's nostalgic world, the aforementioned vocal performances unfortunately suffer in some areas. The prime suspect of this hideously annoying crime is 'I ***ed My Way Up To The Top' - the line 'this is my show' firmly embedding itself in my subcranial cortex like a pickaxe wielded by a clown, to niggle at the back of my mind forever as a frustrating line I wish she'd never written, much alike 'Oh that face, it makes me want to party' from 2013's 'Young And Beautiful'. Whilst the majority of the poor performance decisions have been made on this song, arguably the one 'cool, I'm using the F word regularly!' song - Del Rey delivers a much stronger lyrical base with her femme fatale character, exploring many more concepts than 'Born To Die' and 'Paradise' ever did. 'Sad Girl' digging into a significantly dark place unfamiliar to many LDR fans - "Being a bad bitch on the side / It might not appeal to fools like you / Creeping around while he gets high / It might not be something you would do", 'Money Power Glory' capitalising on all that her character desires in a suitably glorious fashion, 'Old Money' challenging its predecessor 'Video Games' in a bold and earnest plea for love and cry of nostalgia - "Blue hydrangea, cold cash divine / Cashmere, cologne and hot sunshine / Red racing cars, sunset and vine / And we were young and pretty". Sometimes this persona is hard to take seriously, associating the 'cool' with the 'crazy' in 'Cruel World' and furthering this to alcohol consumption in 'West Coast' (featuring some particularly disappointing stock-quality lyrics in the verses. Seriously - 'You've got the music in you, don't you?' Seriously!?), almost boasting what she knows about the period she is attempting to emulate in 'Brooklyn Baby' - "I get high on hydroponic weed / And my jazz collection’s rare / I get down to beat poetry". Del Rey slips into her old ways momentarily on the title track in a spoken section that seems jarring with the introduction of a Spanish line - however, it is deftly made up for by the final lines fitting the overall tone in a fantastic manner that seduces you into Del Rey's fixation with her 'cult leader' (who happens to be named Jim. Jim Jones/Jonestown, anyone?). On the whole; Del Rey delivers a much more mature and thoughtful reflection on her own life, love, struggle in prose that seamlessly fits the nostalgic 60s and 70s mood.
'Ultraviolence' blew me away. I did not expect anything even close to the level of dynamism and progression that can be found across its eleven tracks (with an extra three bonus tracks I discarded for clarity but they're not bad) - producing some very memorable, catchy and meaningful songs that really belong to Lana Del Rey and not the image that she perpetuated so sharply and ignorantly in 'Born To Die' and 'Paradise'. There is an honesty in 'Ultraviolence' that I never thought I'd see from Lana Del Rey. There is experimentation that proves very successful in crafting a simultaneously delicate and poignant release. And there is an unflinchingly confident thing about this album that gives me hope for her future releases.
Shades Of Cool
Pretty When You Cry
Money Power Glory