The face that launched a thousand thinkpieces is back, and this time it’s less beehives and pouty insolence; more leather jackets, counterculture, and wide-eyed provocation. With a titular nod to the favourite pastime of Alex and his droogs in cult classic A Clockwork Orange, Ultraviolence doesn’t pull any punches as Del Rey’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy — her Russian roulette landscape of obsessive love and gender powerplay — slopes toward its dread conclusion. Though heady album opener ‘Cruel World’ resuscitates the well-worn red dress motif, and the title track’s opening strains are reminiscent of Born to Die‘s lush orchestral sound, this album pitches and sways in a sea of woozy guitars — plaintive vocals weaving through languid drums, reverberating synths, and what sounds suspiciously like a theremin. Co-produced, lead-guitared, and hand-clapped by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, it’s a meeting of minds made in sad sexy heaven, and results in a record every bit as ambitious and impressively cohesive as its predecessors.
Lead single ‘West Coast’ manages to channel both 90s alternative rock and William Orbit at the height of his millennial powers. If ‘Pure Shores’ was “futuristic dream pop”, Del Rey carries its legacy over into the realm of nightmare. ‘Down on the west coast, they got their icons / their silver starlets, their Queens of Saigons’ she intones, in a low-key ode to the glamorous world that lures her away from the man she loves. But mere months after the pop icon explosion of expanded music video cum high concept short film Tropico — where Lana in her many guises mingles with Marilyn, Elvis, Jesus, and John Wayne — Ultraviolence exhibits a distinct lack of hero worship. No hey Lolita heys, no James Deans for sure, not even a whiff of brand name soda. With the notable exception of the late great Lou Reed, due to work with Del Rey on the very day of his death, we’re drawn away from the Walk of Fame into an anonymous, almost offensively anachronistic mishmash world of cult leaders, jazz singers, hipsters and beat poets. Having all but jumped the shark with her Kimye-baiting turn on last year’s Great Gatsby soundtrack, the reigning queen of All American nostalgia has found an all new reference set.
Ultraviolence is slower to take hold than Del Rey’s debut, and it’s easy to miss the stirring strings and swaggering self-shout-outs of that bold opening track, its steely statement of intent. But what initially risks sounding like an album of b-sides jumps quickly into focus. David Lynch has been a touchstone since the clear blue skies and blood red roses of Born to Die‘s artwork, fully realised in Paradise‘s heavy-lidded cover of ‘Blue Velvet’, and his spectre is raised again now in the smoky piano bar strains of ambivalent adultery anthem ‘Sad Girl’ (‘He’s got the fire, and he walks with it’) and ‘Shades of Cool”s untouchable neo-noir glamour. Stand-out track ‘Pretty When You Cry’ channels Cat Power at her most fractured and Radiohead at their most bump in the night. ‘I’m stronger than all my men / except for you’ keens Del Rey, snaring the troubling truth at the heart of her music, admitting the kryptonite effect of her own desires, before swirling into a disconcerting peal of otherworldly moans and feedback. ‘Old Money’ is undoubtedly the weakest link, treading far too familiar ‘Young and Beautiful’ territory on a bed of blue hydrangeas and cloying cinema-friendly orchestration, but the album closes (just in case you missed the memo) on a poignant rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘The Other Woman’, complete with an arpeggio so elegant it would make Jeff Buckley blush.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Ultraviolence is the sheer masculinity of its influences, delivered in Del Rey’s trademark ultrafeminine style. Though her live shows could easily be mistaken for AGMs of The Sisterhood (flower crown dresscode mandatory), on Paradise Lana cast herself as a lonely angel in the land of ‘Gods & Monsters’; found her redemption in the company of men in ‘Ride’. This drift from the Bechdel-approved, female-centric storytelling of ‘Carmen’ and ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’ continues, and we find her now reporting the female experience from the front lines of an almost dystopianly male world. The album’s contentious title track not only appropriates the brutal misogyny of Clockwork, but quotes the Crystals’ controversial 1962 track ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’. ‘Jim raised me up / he hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that / loving him was never enough.’ Haggling over Del Rey’s feminist credentials is a pointless (and boring) pursuit, but it’s telling that female characters singing about why they stay in abusive relationships — when we live in a culture that ultimately sanctions violence against women — is where we want to draw the line.
If Born to Die was about temptations of fame and the flesh, and Paradise about tasting the apple, Ultraviolence is the story of life after the Fall, of what happens when desire and fantasy are prioritised above all else, when happiness is forgotten in the wanton pursuit of pleasure. Simultaneously earnest and ironic, it’s as difficult to pin down as the artist herself — but constancy and lucidity have never been Lana’s primary concerns. ‘Yeah my boyfriend’s pretty cool, but he’s not at cool as me’ she reminds us in ‘Brooklyn Baby’, an impish celebration of neo-bohemian living that’s proved divisive amongst even her most ardent superfans. ‘You never liked the way I said it / If you don’t get it then forget it’ she shrugs. If you just don’t get the LDR hype, this album is unlikely to change your mind. If however, two years later, the churchbell chime-in of ‘Video Games’ still gives you goosebumps and/or the sudden urge to go lie down in a darkened room, it will only reassure you that your wagon is hitched to a bonafide starlet — one who doesn’t look to be fading away any time soon.