It was a funny kind of comeback. There wasn’t much of a delay, there was only a handful of interviews, a string of shows and only one or two songs that the radio got behind. People weren’t palpably hungry for a new Lana Del Rey album. There was little mystique surrounding her whereabouts and the initial announcement of Ultraviolence didn’t exactly #BREAKTHEINTERNET. The last thing we expected to happen when Lana’s understated reintroduction did arrive was for it to be one of the greatest LPs of the year. The appointment of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach as producer looked like a disaster waiting to happen- the album could have easily become an overcooked quasi-blues carousel with no real intent or cohesive mood. What we got was the polar opposite. Ultraviolence is a spiderweb. 11 songs that surreptitiously twist the heartstrings and lift the curtain on Del Rey’s innermost insecurities. As the debate about her authenticity continues apace, Ultraviolence simultaneously triumphs as the breakdown of the persona and the starlet playing the role. In her own words, “Mimicking me is a fucking bore”.
Granted, there’s a chance Ultraviolence might just be a masterclass in self-referential character building. Perhaps Lana Del Rey is such a meta-popstar that even the person pretending to be the person is made up. Even if this is the case, the intricate gauze that she weaves throughout the tracks is totally beguiling. The sedated desperation of Old Money’s chorus is devastating. She sounds almost numb in her longing, paralysed by her own hopelessness. Then there’s the almost naive sounding opening to Pretty When You Cry- a starry-eyed precursor to the admission that she’s happy to wait around. The significant other isn’t Lana’s only enemy on the LP. Brooklyn Baby is an emancipation via self-deprecation. “Well, my boyfriend's in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed / I've got feathers in my hair / I get down to Beat poetry”. She’s using her own reputation as bait. She’s trolling Lana Del Rey better than anyone else ever could and coming out on top. It’s tough to tell someone they Fucked [Their] Way Up To The Top when they devote a song to it.
While there are chapters of superiority and retribution, Ultraviolence is by no means a victory lap. It’s the despondency that has the lasting effect. Whether it’s the downbeat finale of The Other Woman or the woozy falsetto that allows Shades Of Cool to take flight, the overarching grey clouds are agonising. This is more than just breakup record- the schmaltzy balladry one might expect is traded in for a collection of insomniac melodies. Monochromatic songs that tell the story of of someone who has sleeplessly come to terms with their own isolation.
Nobody expected Lana Del Rey to release the best album of 2014. It was a year of futurism, new faces and modernist voices. She is - in many ways - the antihero of the cultural advances of 2014. Proclaiming to find feminism “boring”, hinting at a desire to be dead and making an album that capitalises on total weakness. She still resides in the purgatory between real-life and the dream world. Ultraviolence was either the sound of her coming round or her falling asleep for good. Either way, we don’t want to wake up.
Words: Duncan Harrison