Hear it featured Sunday, 8/10 tonight on Echoes.
Have we ever had a CD of the Month that was number one on the Billboard charts, and the artist was on the cover of Rolling Stone? The answer is an easy no. So the question is, why this album, and why now? That answer is more complex.
Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence is not your usual Echoes CD of the Month. It’s not ethereal and dreamy. It won’t soothe you. But along with Beck’s transcendent (and soothing) Morning Phase, it’s one of the most important albums of the year.
Ultraviolence is an album dripping with mood; bathed in reverb and shuddering electric guitars, trailing shreds of broken wire spun through refracted distortions. Produced by Dan Auerbach from the band The Black Keys, it has much of that band’s audio aesthetic, as heard on their latest album, Turn Blue. Much of Ultraviolence was reputedly recorded live in the studio. “Pretty When You Cry” opens with the hiss of guitar amp distortion on a song written in one take with guitarist Blake Stranathan, who supports Del Rey with reverb-drenched accompaniment before taking it out in a screaming solo.
It’s this heavily textured and shadowed sound that draws you into Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence. Then there’s her voice; sometimes ethereal and serene, often fractured and anguished. It’s a voice full of resigned pain that can be seductive and coy or provoked to fury.
“Cruel World” is a break-up song of suicidal dimensions. You’re not sure if Del Rey is splitting up with a lover, drugs, or both, as she wrestles with the pain and obsessions inside. She sings in wasted ecstasy over the gnarled guitar of Auerbach, reaching a tortured cry of abandon in its chorus.
“Ultraviolence” continues that theme as Del Rey looks back to a time of her drug addiction and the harrowing path she allowed herself to follow. With a title that references Anthony Burgess’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, it’s a shuddering song with mellotron strings sending out a mournful cry across a slow, thudding dirge groove, a measured walk to the grave that she avoided. “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” she sings, quoting the old Crystals song of that name and giving it a more sinister spin.
Lana Del Rey’s voice is often criticized and while it’s not a pure vocal vehicle, it is an expressive one, shaded with nuance and layered meaning. In some ways she reminds me of Julie London, in particular, from her album About the Blues, one of the most luxuriously downer recordings of all time.
There are a lot of studied references in Del Rey’s music, an approach which, like her adopted name, lends a nostalgic hue to her music. Auerbach quotes the Beatles “And I Love Her” guitar opening on “West Coast” while “Old Money” is a deceptively wistful reverie whose chord sequence and main melody are lifted from Nino Rota’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet.” It’s a song that may be part autobiographical, but also drawn from movie mythology at Hollywood and Vine.
Del Rey mocks herself and her image on a few tunes. “Brooklyn Baby” may refer to her musician boyfriend at the time, and may also be self-parody about being a hipster digging on “jazz” and “hydroponic weed.” In that song alone she touches base with The Who (“I’m talking about my generation”), name drops Lou Reed and bangs bongos on the Beats. On “Money Power Glory” she sets herself as a seductress taking a religious man for all he’s got. That acts as a stand-in for the way Del Rey has been presented in press over the last few years. “Fucked My Way up To the Top” serves the same purpose: mocking criticisms of her as well as singers who she feels have lifted her style.
“Sad Girl” is pure torch song yearning, as she attempts to find the reasoning behind a love affair, being the other woman when you know it’s wrong and you’ve been there before, but you can’t help your passion. She could be trying on a role or speaking from experience, but she hits the notes of rapture, deceit and obsession that come from an affair.
Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence isn’t a safe Echoes CD of the Month pick. You won’t be able to put this album on and chill out. But you can drop it in, close your eyes, and be immersed in someone else’s extraordinary world, and maybe bring back some insights that will help you in your own. We all have pain. Lana Del Rey just lays hers out there more than most. Music is Del Rey’s salvation. If you can get past her image, the bizarre SNL appearance and unguarded press statements, you may actually find some solace in Ultraviolence as well.