Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ultraviolence | Lana Del Rey


★★★★☆

Lana Del Rey rocketed to stardom just over two years ago with her debut studio album, Born To Die. The album captivated audiences with Del Rey's low, smokey vocals and large, climatic orchestral booms. It seems that with her sophomore album Ultraviolence, Del Rey has traded in some of the orchestra for guitars and brought her songbird-worthy upper register to the forefront.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

Ultraviolence opens with a monster of a track. Rounding out just over six and a half minutes long, "Cruel World" begins as a light guitar-led track before spiraling into a small rage as Del Rey sings "With my little red party dress on / Everybody knows that I'm the best, I'm crazy." We also the beginning of a few bits that are sung in a childish, cutesy tone when she sings "I got your bible and your gun / And you love to party and have fun. / And I love your women and all of your heroin / And I'm so happy now that you're gone."

The title track of the album was first played live by Del Rey at the end of May, and it is clear why the title of the song was able to encompass the entire album. The song paints a story of domestic abuse in a never-ending relationship as Del Rey sings, "He hit me and it felt like a kiss. / This is ultraviolence." The strings that made Lana's past music so popular play in the background while her intermittent vocal harmonies and drums take center stage. 

"Shades of Cool" was released as a promo single before the album's release and I first listened to the song on YouTube. I listened to it three times but just didn't like it; there was something off about it. Finally, somebody pointed out to me that the version of "Shades of Cool" posted on YouTube was pitched to an awkward key; the studio version sounds pretty solid. A nasally upper-register is contrasted with some pouty vocals over a beautiful waltzy instrumental. The cozy, warm sound is seamlessly interrupted by a guitar solo before returning for another chorus repetition and some vocal ad-libs in the final seconds.

Another promo single released to promote the album was "Brooklyn Baby," which is one of the stronger tracks on the record. The song opens with Del Rey singing along with the strums of a guitar in a hushed, cutesy voice. The entire song is dedicated to her boyfriend, who makes a vocal appearance at the end as Del Rey sings "Yeah, my boyfriend's pretty cool, but he's not as cool as me." Some hipster-worthy lyrics get thrown in the mix, such as "I get high on hydroponic weed / And my jazz collection’s rare / I get down to beat poetry," but most of the song is about her relationship.

The lead single of the album, "West Coast," has Dan Auerbach's influence painted all over it. The song is much unlike Del Rey's prior material, relying heavily on a hushed upper register, a drum kit, and a guitar-filled instrumental. Riding on its coattails, "Sad Girl" is a laid-back track about being a mistress. At times, it seems that "Sad Girl" is actually a pun for "Side Girl." Throughout the song, Del Rey holds an airy, cutesy tone and surprises me in the chorus as she slides up to sing the phrase "He's got the fire and he walks with it."

To keep the summertime sadness theme running, (Yes, that's a pun. Enjoy it.) it sounds as if Del Rey has been crying before recording "Pretty When You Cry." The vocal delivery in the verses isn't promising by any stretch of the imagination, but it gets better in the choruses. Like the title track of this record, I believe this song also pertains to domestic violence, specifically when the subject is under the influence of drugs.

In addition to Dan Auerbach, Dan Heath, and Rick Nowels, Del Rey co-wrote with songwriting heavyweight Greg Kurstin on Ultraviolence. Kurstin and Del Rey worked on "Money Power Glory" together, one of the most memorable tracks from the album. In the song, Del Rey sarcastically sings, "You talk lots about God / Freedom comes from the call / But that's not what this bitch wants / Not what I want at all / I want money, power and glory." The song is a very happy medium between the alternative pop sound of Born To Die and the overall alternative rock sound of Ultraviolence.

Del Rey comes for blood in the diss track "Fucked My Way Up To The Top." On the song's content, Del Rey said in an interview, "It's about a singer who first sneered about my allegedly 'not authentic' style but later she stole and copied it. And now she’s acting like I am the art project and she the true super artist. My God, and people actually believe her; she’s successful." Many music fans have assumed that this song is about overnight sensation Lorde, but another target could be Lady Gaga. Whoever it is, Del Rey grabs them by the hair and hangs them to dry: "I'm a dragon, you're a whore / Don't even know what you're good for / Mimicking me is a fucking bore."

Another track that hit me automatically is "Old Money," in which the strings come back in full force. A piano accents them while Del Rey's voice slides over the instruments like butter. The sad, crestfallen lyrics don't leave, however: "My father's love was always strong / My mother's glamour lives on and on / Yet still inside, I felt alone for reasons unknown to me." Directly after this song, the standard pressing of Ultraviolence closes with a cover of Nina Simone's "The Other Woman," another song about being a mistress. The song's production style is very reminiscent of Del Rey's cover of "Blue Velvet," as her voice has been artificially aged to sound as if it was recorded decades ago.

The deluxe edition of the album contains three bonus tracks, the first being "Black Beauty." The song's demo track leaked many months ago as the album was still in its planning stages, but many of the remnants of that demo can be heard in the final version. The vocals are identical, but the song now blossoms as it progresses, adding light guitar layers for depth. I love this new version of the song; I was blown away by the subtle but necessary changes.

"Guns and Roses" is a song that was produced primarily by Del Rey herself. The harmonies leading to the chorus are beautiful, but the repetitive chorus is a let down. The spiraling guitar and drum spotlight at the end of the track is a very nice touch, though. The deluxe album goes out with a randomly tropical-infused track called "Florida Kilos." The track is actually one of my favorites overall because of the Gwen Stefani-esque vocal delivery and great sound, but the entire song is literally about cooking and snorting crack, getting high in Miami, and snorting more crack with a boyfriend. Regardless, I love it... Is that bad?

OVERALL

I can see a lot of Lizzy Grant in this album. (And if you don't know what I mean by that, Lana Del Rey's birth name is Elizabeth Grant; she tried to launch a music career under her given name but it fell flat.) The record takes a lot of hints from her hundreds of unreleased tracks, but with hints of what she learned from Born To Die and Paradise. Personally, I don't care for a lot of her unreleased material, but the works here on Ultraviolence are perfectly polished. However, this change could leave many music lovers that have only heard Born To Die scratching their heads and asking what happened to their alternative pop princess.

Dan Auerbach's influence on this album is especially present on the first five tracks of the album; those tracks in particular are very open and sound as if they were recorded in just a few takes. There are few imperfections here and there and it leaves for a very unique sound; it's definitely not bad by any means, it just makes the songs seem raw and pure. And lyrically, I believe that corruption display throughout this album makes the content of Born To Die seem like child's play. Del Rey's debut focused on alcohol dependence, love, and heartbreak, while Ultraviolence is packed with drugs, sex, scandal, lying, cheating, and (obviously) violence.

In thirty second snippets, this album is lackluster. When I first heard the snippets of the album that were released on an online music store, I feared that this album would go down in my books as a three-star effort; a back-step from her debut. However, the majority of the tracks on Ultraviolence are well over four minutes long; each track swells and blossoms over time, which cannot be heard in just thirty seconds. Each ambient track must be heard in full to comprehend the true beauty of this album. This new-found alternative rocks sound will draw new people in, but the lyrical content of this album and the ideas and concepts behind it are going to steer other people away; I'm sure she's already realized that. It's an album soaked in corruption; it's not going to be pretty. When you take a step back and appreciate it for what it is, Ultraviolence truly is a gem.

Ultraviolence will be released in the United States on June 17, 2014 under Interscope Records. Exclusive deluxe editions of the album can be found at Target and Urban Outfitters.

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