Musicians in this era are expected to be transparent and accessible — or at least project the appearance of transparency and accessibility — but Lana Del Rey rejects all of that. We know that Lana Del Rey is the alter ego of a woman named Lizzy Grant, but it’s very hard to tell where Lana ends and Lizzy begins. Her commitment to her aesthetic — hyper-femme to the point of seeming deliberately anti-feminist, nostalgic for the mid-20th century while firmly rooted in a contemporary context — is all-consuming, and her mask never slips. Even when she talks in interviews about particular songs or videos being autobiographical, it’s difficult to discern whether she’s being sincere, or messing with interviewers like a young Bob Dylan.
It’s never clear exactly why Lana Del Rey does any of the things she does, or how much of what she sings is meant to be ironic. When she first emerged in 2011, this ambiguity triggered an immediate backlash and an attempt by some in the music press to investigate Lizzy Grant’s backstory for clues about her intention in taking on the role of Lana Del Rey. But three years later, upon the release of her third record Ultraviolence, those questions have become less important as the context for her fame has shifted from being an emerging buzz artist in the indie realm to becoming an actual pop star with a handful of platinum singles and a debut album, Born to Die, that has sold in the neighborhood of 7 million copies worldwide. The audience that has embraced Lana isn’t hung up on authenticity and seems to appreciate her contradictions because they see their own lives — or at least inner lives — reflected in them.
Lana Del Rey’s lyrics touch on various recurring themes — a fascination with people playing roles through their consumer choices, an obsession with being sexually submissive around powerful men, the notion that the world used to be a far more romantic place — but virtually all of her music and videos are ultimately about a deep, enveloping sadness. In this way, she actually has a lot in common with Thom Yorke from Radiohead. Both artists have very specific sets of personal iconography — hers is like a Pinterest board full of glamorous images from fashion magazines and old movies; his is more like a wall full of paranoia-inducing news clippings. For both, evocative imagery and vaguely triggering language orbit expressions of raw, distressed emotion. Del Rey’s debut was uneven in quality partly because she overwhelmed her songs with signifiers, but she’s become a more sophisticated songwriter over time. Ultraviolence has more or less the same ideas and aesthetics as Born to Die, but the emphasis has shifted from setting a scene to conveying an air of exquisite, seductive sadness.
Whereas Born to Die and its follow-up, Paradise, updated classic, melodramatic balladry with elements of hip-hop and chillwave production, Ultraviolence is nearly devoid of “beats” or any sounds that feel even vaguely modern. The record, which is mainly produced by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, has a relentlessly bleak and despairing tone. The most immediately compelling songs, like the title track and the single “West Coast,” feel a bit sinister, and imply a sense of impending doom with hazy, psychedelic distortions. Auerbach’s production style brings out both the earthiness and the grandeur in Del Rey’s music, especially when she’s singing bombastic ballads that sound as though they could’ve been James Bond themes, like “Cruel World” and the showstopping “Shades of Cool.” He’s particularly good at handling her voice, and complementing her phrasing with exactly the right level of reverb. This is especially notable on “Shades of Cool” when the chorus kicks in, and the most gutting line of a song about being in love with an emotionally unavailable man — “you are unfixable” — takes on a trilling tonality that’s a bit strange and thoroughly haunting. The record is full of powerful, emotional moments like this, which reveal a wounded heart at the center of all the flash and artifice.
The Lana Del Rey of Ultraviolence is still aloof and unknowable, and she inhabits so many variations on her character that you can never be sure what details may be based in her actual reality, and what’s just an effective or interesting way to tell a story. But it doesn’t matter whether you know the “reality” of any of this, because it all takes a backseat to the emotional truth in the music. This is where transparency and accessibility fails both artists and listeners: needing a song to be autobiographical and easily explained in terms of motivation and context flattens it, and limits meaningful connection. Del Rey’s music isn’t about relating directly to the people and scenes described in her songs so much as it’s about finding ways to see our lives in hyperbolic, glamorous terms. This is nothing new — it’s pretty much the basis for how we connect with most stories and pop songs — but it feels different coming from her because she’s calling attention to it. The first time around, it seemed as though Del Rey was attempting to criticize or subvert this, but now she seems a lot less ambivalent or confrontational. The melodrama of Ultraviolence is a refuge, for Del Rey and her legions alike.