Lana Del Rey, the musical persona of Lizzy Grant, lives in an uncanny valley between the extremes of pop star and real girl. She looks something like both, but really is neither. This is why she enchants people, this is why she pisses people off (often simultaneously—her ardent detractors can argue against her artistic value but would be hypocrites to deny her ability to fascinate). She rubs right up against notions of authenticity with a singer-songwriter guise that can feel confessional—her terrific new album Ultraviolence is full of revelations of things generally not said in public. She explores what it is to be a proud mistress, an opportunist out for "money, power, and glory," a hack who, as a song title puts it, "Fucked My Way Up to the Top." (Duncan Cooper's rather astute profile of Del Rey in Fader links that song to a relationship Del Rey had with a record exec, even though Del Rey has claimed that it's about a hater.)
None of these are terribly original ideas, they're just not usually found in pop. Del Rey deals in tropes like other pop stars deal in idioms. Pop music is clichéd—inherently, even—but Lana Del Rey is clichéd in a new way.
It makes sense, then, that Ultraviolence is her difficult second album, even if it's technically her third (before she refined her glamorous torch-singer persona, she released an album as Lizzy Grant called Lana Del Ray in 2010). She has ditched the polite but synthesized beats of her 2012 breakthrough Born To Die for thick, distorted rock co-produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Auerbach once publicly implied that Del Rey was a flash in the pan, but he has helped ensure that she isn't. His was a bad call, anyway – Born To Die sold 7 million copies worldwide. (As a contrast, Lady Gaga's ARTPOP, which was released more recently but will not likely have any further singles to propel it, sold 2.5 million worldwide.)
"When I played [the label] [the single] 'West Coast' they were really not happy that it slipped into an even slower BPM for the chorus," Del Rey told The Guardian. "They were like: 'None of these songs are good for radio and now you're slowing them down when they should be speeded up.' But for me, my life was feeling murky, and that sense of disconnectedness from the streets is part of that."
And so, one of the few people on the planet who can still sell records has turned her back on commercial accessibility. Instead of releasing an album of singles, as so many do, she has released a body of work that functions as a whole (I didn't get "West Coast" until I heard it in the context of the album, where that tempo change is exhilarating). Instead of merely singing about "Summertime Sadness" (the remix of that single, by the way, landed Del Rey her first Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100), she delivered an album-long embodiment of it just days before summer's official starting point. Ultraviolence conforms to no traditional image of "summer music"—it is not happy, it is not bright—but its dense sluggishness, its aural humidity, could redefine or at least broaden the concept.
From a commercial standpoint, Ultraviolence is a nonsense move, but from an artistic one, it is fluid. Maybe that's the point—Del Rey told The Guardian that she couldn't enjoy the success of her breakthrough viral hit "Video Games" because of all the scrutiny about her authenticity that came with it. You'd think that the ensuing commercial success would have given her the last laugh but, no, as she recounts in this discussion of Ultraviolence's "Money Power Glory," which she wrote in a "sardonic mood":
Like, if all that I was actually going to be allowed to have by the media was money, loads of money, then fuck it … What I actually wanted was something quiet and simple: a writer's community and respect.
Ultraviolence hits the nearly impossible sweet spot between aesthetic change and consistency. This album does not sound like Born To Die, but it certainly sounds like Lana Del Rey. Del Rey's talent lies in conjuring atmosphere—she may have technical shortcomings (specifically her range), but her voice is a wonder. It reminds me of mahogany—rich, strong, smooth. Her abundant hooks are still ear candy, and the move to a new sound reminds me of Portishead's change between their 1997 self-titled album and more rock-oriented but still moody Third in 2008.
And there she goes again, reminding us of other things. Lana Del Rey never stops reminding, whether it's through the aforementioned tropes, or the Americana-obsessed imagery that she employs (Hunter S. Thompson, the Hollywood Hills, a gun-carrying Bible owner, and Chevy Malibu are all name-checked on Ultraviolence). Her lyrics are laced with references to other songs: The Crystals' "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)," the Who's "My Generation," the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give," and Wiz Khalifa's "Young, Wild & Free" are among those that pop up. She retraces her own steps in images (she loves blue hydrangeas), themes (being a mess; youth and anxiety of its expiration), and words ("Ultraviolence" and "Fucked My Way Up to the Top" both contain this section: "Lay me down tonight / In my linen and curls / Lay me down tonight / Rivera girls").
Her self-obsession and image construction is another trope, one present in pop stars and civilians who want to seem cool on the Internet or IRL. She embodies the latter scenario in "Brooklyn Baby," which could be mockery or celebration. There's a fine line between the two at this point: "And my boyfriend's in the band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed / I've got feathers in my hair / I get high on hydroponic weed / And my jazz collection's rare / I get down to beat poetry / I'm a Brooklyn baby /I'm a Brooklyn baby." Her cultural commentary comes in sonic snapshots that are as broad as the paintings of Norman Rockwell, and no less obsessed with America and the behavior of its inhabitants.
We're so familiar with ourselves that Del Rey's kind of portraits can breed contempt, especially since they're less than wholesome, and moreover especially because they're unwholesome portrayals of female behavior. And in a culture that endlessly gazes at itself, sometimes she feels more like a symptom than an auteur. While enjoyable in the moment, her music rarely detaches from her self-written mythology to transcend into timeless, self-contained pop songs. I think she did it with "Video Games," with "Young and Beautiful," and on Ultraviolence's "Old Money," which despite its title and collage of Del Rey-brand imagery specificity ("Cashmere, cologne and white sunshine / Red racing cars, Sunset and Vine") hinges on a simple and relatable sentiment of lingering love: "But if you send for me, you know I'll come / And if you call for me, you know I'll run / I'll run to you, I'll run to you / I'll run, run, run…"
All text comes with context, and Lana Del Rey's feels particularly burdensome, until it isn't. She turns her burden into material: Del Rey responds to her detractors, herself, her culture that she's increasingly present within. The music industry wasn't born to die, it just seems like it was. Lana Del Rey, meanwhile, is a perpetual-motion machine. That's good coping, and better business.