You already have an opinion about Lana Del Rey. This is inevitable: She’s been such a polarizing figure in independent (and mainstream) music for long enough that most everyone has decided what they think of her. Whether you think she’s underrated or overrated, there’s no denying that Ultraviolence, her newest LP out last week, is a huge artistic step forward for the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant.
You don’t have to live in Del Rey’s world, or even want to, to appreciate what she’s doing with Ultraviolence. Tonally and thematically, the record is very reminiscent of the 2011 indie film Bellflower, which depicted a culture of fast cars, strong drinks, and casual misogyny. The title track is ominous: “I can hear sirens, sirens/He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” a narcotized-sounding Del Rey coos, quoting the controversial song by the Crystals. There’s nothing glamorous about abusive relationships, but Del Rey isn’t defending them: She’s mining controversial cultural material for maximum impact.
But really, Del Rey is remarkably consistent here. There’s much less fluff on Ultraviolence than on Born to Die, and the mood is so cinematically devastating that it functions pretty well as an internally-consistent work of art. This isn’t a feminist manifesto (Del Rey has said she doesn’t identify with the feminist movement anyway), and it shouldn’t be taken as such. But in the same way that The Weeknd’s morally blank lyrics hit a nerve, scratch an itch, and tell a compelling story, Del Rey has morphed into a larger-than-life cultural icon that seems to stand in for the hopelessness of it all. It’s troubling, and it’s frankly pretty brilliant.
The record’s highlights are its singles: “Ultraviolence” is gorgeous if problematic, and “West Coast” slows down when it hits the chorus, as though Del Rey is daring the listener to skip past its improbably beautiful, soporific crawl. There’s a languid quality to these songs—Ultraviolence is a June release, and it's drenched in summertime sadness, which Del Rey should probably go ahead and trademark. There’s a chilling, angry fembot vibe in “F***ed My Way Up to the Top,” and “Money Power Glory” demonstrates more self-awareness than has been seen elsewhere in Del Rey’s discography. She’s clearly willing to engage with the tropes she’s been assigned, and the conversation is encouragingly robust.
There’s been some really smart writing recently about the phenomenon of female sadness in popular culture. No question, Del Rey has turned a mood into an art form. It’s also not just her: There are a slew of female artists right now who embody the same kind of melancholy. But nobody commits to it as wholly as Del Rey does. Banks, Lykke Li, and Sky Ferreira may be singing sad songs, too, but at the end of the day they appear to be able to get far enough away from the material to function as relatively normal human beings. Del Rey affords herself no such space. She’s embodied her work so thoroughly that Lana Del Rey is virtually indistinguishable from Lizzy Grant (and this is a fascinating paradox given early criticism related to her perceived authenticity). She’s got her audience’s number this time around: look no further than “Money Power Glory” lyric: “Hallelujah, I wanna take you for all that you've got." She doesn't care what you think, but she's fairly confident you won't be able to look away.
Musically, the phenomenon is easy enough to name: emotionally saturated, Americana-laced lyrics and production that calls attention to Del Rey’s undeniably compelling vocals. Culturally, there’s something more at work here. It’s this metanarrative about a woman singing sad songs because she feels like it—not because she identifies as a feminist or because she wants your respect—that is so fascinating. Del Rey appears just as self-loathing as she is glamorous. She’s painting with broad, probably intentionally problematic strokes, and it’s working for her.