Coked and pouting on a sticky bar stool somewhere off the Palm Beach strip, you can imagine yourself stumbling into a “Lana Del Rey twenty years down the line” equivalent. Smoke garishly caresses her face as she suggestively taps an unread copy of Lolita with the ever-glowing end of a cigarette. Silk-laden sleazes puffing Puros gaze at her over a faded pool table. Her surgically-sunken eyes glisten. ‘I like driving fast’, she coos, swiping dyed-dark, Russian hair onto the back of her neck. She mistakenly drops her personal stylist into conversation about Kashmir. The men smirk in unison. Faded tattoos and diamonds garnish age-betraying hands. She could be any of a withered plethora of fallen icons: Britney, Bardot, even the self-likened Monroe herself.
Born to Die imagined “Lana” digging for the alleged gold of Hollywood’s former glory days. Great debuts often forge through frustrated and impoverished years of “not making it”, but Lana was immediately projected as an object of our historic “upper echelon”. A pretty, corporate side-order to crème fraîche and raspberry coulees canapés. She was an anthropomorphised Jessica Rabbit, swaying heartlessly by an unnervingly out-of-tune grand piano; a superficially rising and heart-wrenchingly falling byproduct of cinematic culture. Money was the anthem of Lana Del Rey’s initial impact; the prevalent need to have it, to wear it, and to drive it. The album bleakly meditated on the image of to-be-fallen femme fatalities stumbling drunk and drugged out of old Cadillacs, flashing their crotch hair (or a lack thereof) to camera’s documenting Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic splendour.
Ultraviolence transports this knickerless Del Rey from her queenship of Coney Island, and dip-trips in and out of Manhattan, to the West Coast of the USA. She has aged under the LA sun. As the Botox sags and creeping sounds of psychedelia awaken nostalgia, she belatedly ponders: “is this happiness?” The whole album tells the convoluted tale of Lana’s assimilation within the role of moneymaking-mistress. To ease the pain of Xanax-addled trips to Floridian golf resorts, she seems to have been shagging her way through the US’s Latin American subpopulation who tell her she is still “la princessa”. Less than subtle brand-name-dropping reminds us that Lana’s heart still aches for a time when blue hydrangeas and red racing cars filled a moneyed void of meaning. Yet here unfolds the predictable rite of passage for the persona constructed in Born to Die: time and distance have called a doped-up daddy’s girl to reconsider a hollow fixation with all that glimmers.
Unfortunately, thematic depth rarely exceeds the poolside puddles left under fake-tanned feet at the Chateau Marmont. Following the ill-fate of artists who stake a public identity by alluding to popularised pastiche, her cultural referentiality becomes tired in this second attempt. As hazy guitar riffs weave around the final verse of the to-be-hit ‘Money Power Glory’, Lana’s breathy repetition of hip hop’s dream-deriven phrase “dope and diamonds” transports us to a realm of hipster tumblr gifs, not the ultraviolent edges of our planet. The album title promises the rebellious hedonism of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but Lana does little more than “get high on hydroponic weed”. Whatever that is.
Clichéd uncools aside, the commercial sheen of Born to Die is stripped away here to showcase her sophisticated, vocal maturation. Where initial use of her lower vocal range sometimes combined with the nouveaux-riche, Valley girl twang to produce a sound not unlike Family Guy’s Herbert the Pervert, Ultraviolence grants space for a higher vocabulary that swathes with a sweetness recalling nothing but the original Snow White. The mic setup that gave the vocals of Born to Die the echoing and resonant quality of a historically pivotal speech have been bravely abandoned to allow for moments of faltering fragility. Directly recalling Edith Piaf, Lana’s cascades through a cover of Nina Simone’s ‘The Other Woman’, eventually bursting into an ecstasy of bittersweet sincerity unfelt in her early material.
‘Shades of Cool’, ‘Sad Girl’ and ‘Old Money’ are pictorially exquisite tracks in which (The Black Keys’) Dan Auerbach’s production carries the distinctive, Del Rey vocals into new filmic territory. String arrangements recalling John Barry’s title track ‘You Only Live Once’ transport us through the blue-tinged bar lights of a Bond film to the expansive countryside travelled throughout American literature.
Overall, Ultraviolence maintains the artist’s powerful ability to paint places, people and the sensations that follow her. But the problem remains: whether splayed in the back of a Chevy Malibu, driving down Hollywood Boulevard, or smoking up with the A$AP Crew under Brooklyn Bridge, we never have a sense of Lana Del Rey changing. And Ultraviolence leaves this changeless, chain-smoking character with even less glamorous hotspots and famous iconography to frequent.
By Jonjo Lowe