The improvements are still in want. Del Rey is wearing, again, the troubled, beautiful and bored persona for this experiential album, which upfront demands a certain suspension of reality. From psyche-lilting opener “Cruel World” to dead-eyed cover “The Other Woman,” “Ultraviolence” doesn’t so much get exhausted as it exhausts you on this lethargic fantasy. She and producer Auerbach need for you to go there, even as you side-eye the payoff.
Del Rey battles some of the tiresome tropes of fame (“Money Power Glory”) or the bitter backbiting (“Fucked My Way To The Top”) that have nipped at her heels during the last couple of years, during her rise to pop prominence, co-writing every song. But she does it in the most world-weary ways at times, with slurs and sighs and cartoonishishly lethargic composure. Her “Ultraviolence” characters are disillusioned and addicted to other misanthropes, as if she has no agency to fall out of love with the worst of them. (This is fine, by the way, until the self-mockery of “The Other Woman” breaks the will to breathe). The woozy anthems like “Sad Girl” are so pitiable, “Brooklyn Baby” so sarcastic, it makes it almost seems like she has skin in the game.
She has Auerbach making some lush choices to echo this culty purview, particularly with some guitar lines that hover over the mess like Del Rey’s reverb-dripping hum. Pretending she can’t sing for the sake of “Pretty When You Cry” is helped by an equally janky arrangement; a Wah-wah pedal cries out over the angelic “Shades of Cool” like a maternity ward. Sharp co-writers and –producers like Daniel Heath and Greg Kurstin, snap onto the lyrical and sonic template with eerie accuracy. All the skeletons are out of the closets and arranged and organized so impeccably on the lawn. If only it hit a different note.
In the track-by-track review below, I try to highlight the finite differences.
“Cruel World”: Nearly 7 minutes baby babble with a Black Angels jam. Bibles and guns, women and fun (and heroin), Del Rey says that she’s “so happy now that you’re gone,” but can you believe the protagonist is capable of happiness? That may be exactly the point.
“Ultraviolence”: It’s too bad the best lyrics here – which summarize the story – are borrowed (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”). This one is a grower, a dirge on the moon. Why ruin it with a spoken word bridge?
“Shades of Cool”: Lana Del Rey is the spinning ballerina in your musical box, the one where you keep all your cocaine. I love the blue mood of the coherent and interesting chorus, which helpfully puts her voice in a key that plays up her talents.
“Brooklyn Baby”: What is more annoying than hipsters? Complaining about hipsters.
“West Coast”: This actually has a nice clip to it, and it wouldn’t be out of the imagination if Auerbach had Danger Mouse behind the wheel of this Laurel Canyon night ride.
“Sad Girl”: Her voice reporting like a slinky trumpet, Del Rey just went into the other room to slip into something a little more cloying. She’s a sad girl and a bad girl, and 92% OKCupid compatible with the dude from “Video Games.”
“Pretty When You Cry”: Slow down an Eagles song, and combine it with a wounded vocal take that doubles as a skin irritant.
“Money Power Glory”: This would be an utter triumph had Pink or Christina (or, OK, Leonard Cohen) growled through it. This is all Kurstin, who tries to amplify the visceral sadness and only has a deflated vocal performance to work with. I wanted something nasty and daring. It’s a paper crane when it could be an eagle.
“Fucked My Way Up To The Top”: Spoiler alert: this song is extra needy. “Lay me down / in linen and pearls / lay me down tonight / I’m your favorite girl.” She’s making a joke, and I’m looking for the bar.
“Old Money”: This song makes me think of people who watch “Wolf of Wall Street” and fail to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as the miserable sh*tpile he is. This is some excellent, heart-filled work, all-deserving of the mist and a grand piano.
“The Other Woman”: I am an ashtray, and the last cigarette’s just been stamped out.
"Ultraviolence" is out today (June 17).