Review Summary: Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh
On a surface level, Lana Del Rey may seem to many like a living musical contradiction. Her attempts to bring back the old-fashioned style of the old greats such as Nancy Sinatra or Leonard Cohen have been known to clash with overly melodramatic modern "bad girl" lyricism that many consider vapid. Also, there's the fact that she hasn't always delivered very solid live shows when compared to her studio performances, as well as the way her baroque pop stylings get mixed in with modern hip-hop-influenced beats. But really, these contradictions bring out many of Lana's best qualities... I've always seen her work, primarily lyrically, as a commentary or possibly critique of the negative aspects of today's society and media. And yes, the lyrics do indeed become really clichéd and recycled after a certain point (proving to be one of Born to Die's biggest flaws); however, one can't deny that her overall style - and mix of styles - is pretty damn unique. This mix of seduction, apathy, aforementioned "bad girl" attitude, as well as happiness based around the little things in life, may seem disjointed but it works startlingly well when combined with such varied (if a little samey atmosphere-wise) music. And on that note, once Born to Die and the Paradise EP came and went, many of us were more than a little curious to see how she would expand upon their successes. The result" Reflection
Ultraviolence is lush, dreamy, dreary, and ultimately a perfect way to combat the more hollow aspects of its predecessors. If Born to Die was a bold love letter to 60s Americana music and Hollywood-style cinematic orchestration, this record is the scaled-back reflection that follows it. Ultraviolence has been widely considered a dream pop record, and with good reason. Gone is much of the excess and "decadent glamor" of previous works in favor of a more entrancing piece of slow pop bliss; half of the melodies sound as though they could have made it onto a Radiohead or Porcupine Tree record due to their heavily melancholic and layered attributes. Lana herself sounds as beautifully seductive and slow as ever, her vocals washed out in heavy reverb and what sounds like vintage 50s production techniques. The whole thing feels more timeless and less gimmicky than Born to Die, filled to the brim with depressive elegance and thankfully devoid of many of the hip-hop elements than dragged the aforementioned album down. What's so impressive, though, is that most of this album's songs are in extremely slow droning tempos, but rarely get boring because of everything going on above the beats. Sure, a song like "West Coast" switches tempos around for the chorus to presumably give it a dreamier effect (which does work), but the majority of this release is exceptionally slow and somber in execution.
However, I'd like to argue that the repetitive tempos aren't really the point of this record. It's all about the dynamics, the vocals, the layers of sound... basically, everything built around the beats. Hell, "Old Money" doesn't even use any beats at all! The best thing about this entire record, the reason why the instrumentation and overall vibe work so well, is because everything is so intimate and reflective. As the closing R&B-influenced tune "The Other Woman" closes the experience out, there's a genuine feeling of finality and beauty that stems from Lana's emotive crooning; it's the kind of sound that influences someone to spin the record for a second time right after it ends. Ultraviolence is so multifaceted and genuinely beautiful that its replay value is simply extraordinary. For instance, you might initially be hooked by "Brooklyn Baby"'s calm and subtle guitar chords and how they combine with Lana's vocals, only to return and hear the little dynamic changes here and there when aided by the underlying synthesizer work. And of course there's that wonderful guitar reverb in the oddly hopeful-sounding opener "Cruel World," which needs to be heard to be believed.
Ultraviolence does have a tendency to get a bit repetitive because of its incessant use of really slow tempos and just how somber the experience gets, but don't give up if you don't get hooked on the first listen or two. It's the very definition of a grower, and this record has something Born to Die never had: more reflection. It comes across as personal. It comes across as purely genuine. And most of all, it comes across as Lana fitting more snugly into this identity she's been carving out for herself. Adele - as well as you other retro soul/pop revivals out there - you could learn some things from this woman.