Tuesday, June 17, 2014

album review: 'ultraviolence' by lana del rey

How many of you are familiar with Hollywood director Sofia Coppola? The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she defiantly made a name for herself with an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Lost In Translation, which I most remember for an absolutely stellar performance from Bill Murray. But since then, Sofia Coppola's movies have drifted towards a theme she has explored many times: the hedonism and existential emptiness of the idle rich. Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring hammered on these themes, and while each film is beautifully shot, the framing of the movies always frustrated me, in that there always seemed to be an attempted justification behind her protagonists' poor behaviour that tended to feel flimsy. Coppola seemed to show a lot of empathy for her characters, even when that empathy didn't feel earned by the script.

And I get the exact same feelings whenever I listen to Lana Del Rey. Like most people, I listened to her major label debut Born To Die in 2012 - and like most critics, I wasn't impressed. Yes, the production was lush, and Lana Del Rey could create some very pretty and opulent songs, but there was an air of artificiality and calculation surrounding every song of the record, from the arsenal of brand names to the completely out-of-place trip hop elements placed to blend both old and new ideals of wealth and success. And on a certain, shallow, fantasy-level, it kind of works... but in an era where we have Vienna Teng, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, Lykke Li, and Sharon Van Etten, you're not going to convince me that any of this is soulful or deep. It's not even a commentary on this sort of opulence in the vein of Lorde, but is instead framed as a glorification, a fantasy - and to be fair, I got the impression that was Lana Del Rey's intention. And such a fantasy would be fine if there weren't some really troublesome narratives beneath it, such as Lana Del Rey's obsession with glamorizing bad relationships or retrograde sexual politics, and she didn't really step up with the personality to back it up. So when I heard that Lana Del Rey had written 'Young And Beautiful' for Baz Luhrman's version of The Great Gatsby, I wasn't surprised in the slightest - because like that film, it's a fusion of old and new flavours of glamour that misses the depth in the spectacle. But even if I were to give Lana Del Rey the benefit of the doubt and say she was self-aware, her artistic framing certainly wasn't - coming back to Sofia Coppola, there's shallow hedonism and existential emptiness in Lana Del Rey's music, but it's framed as though we should empathize with the drama she presents when the text and subtext don't support it.

And thus when she titled her second album Ultraviolence, I had no idea what to expect, especially considering the album was mostly produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. But, since it was requested time and time again, I decided to give the album a fair chance: what did I find?

Okay, this is going to be tricky, because I can acknowledge right out of the gate that Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence is not for me on any level, and yet I completely get why people like this record - but at the same time, this record is not good. In fact, it's pretty damn close to awful, worse than Born To Die in my opinion. But before you jump down my throat, let me explain why and try to keep this reasonable - I've got nothing against Lana personally and this review is about her music, not her.

So to start, let's talk about drama and melodrama. Both have their place in music, depending on the tone the artist is looking to set. For drama to work, you need to have a conflict, visible stakes, and a tone and context that supports it. If you don't have a conflict, any stakes, or an inconsistent or wildly exaggerated tone or context, you've got melodrama - and in pop music, that can work if framed properly. A good melodrama knows exactly what it is and revels in the absurdities and extremes that it can get away with outside of the genre conventions, most notably the excuse to go over-the-top, which can work in pop if you have enough personality or flavour. A bad melodrama, the type critics don't like but most audiences adore, is when it tries to hide behind the tone of a drama, which will fool people into seeing depth when there's really nothing there - or worse, there's something ugly hiding beneath it all.

Why bring this up? Because on my first few listens, Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence came across as a classic example of a really bad melodrama, a record that's trying to present itself as dramatic and deep and fails utterly whenever you look deeper. So let's go piece by piece: what are the conflicts on this record? The only track that gets close to Sofia Coppola's brand of existential emptiness is 'Old Money', which is probably one of the better tracks on the album even though it shamelessly steals the melody from the 1968 Romeo & Juliet movie that we all saw in junior high. The other songs often fall into the vein of pining for some guy who did Lana wrong, either by cheating in 'Shades of Cool' and 'Sad Girl' or by his vices like 'Pretty When You Cry'.  Now, my go-to songs when talking about the 'other woman' story done right are the timeless Reba McEntire & Linda Davis duet from 1993 'Does He Love You', or 'I Know Him So Well' from my favourite musical Chess, and in those songs, the two women seem to treat the cheating as an inevitability and spend more time addressing each other and the relationship rather than the guy in question. But Lana Del Rey frames her songs instead at the guy in question or at a questioning observer - and in these songs through her delivery and lyrics, she's clearly still quite infatuated with this guy for no discernible reason, even though he treats her with obvious neglect and there's no good reason for her to stick around. She should know better in these tracks - and what's worse is that she frames the songs as still being romantic and dramatic when really, they aren't. 

And those are the songs where the conflict can be somewhat justified. 'Brooklyn Baby' fashions the stereotypical manic pixie dream girl who is talking to an implied older gentleman at a bar who she says she loved - which might have been the departed Lou Reed except the second verse implies a personality conflict and someone more immediate - even though she has a boyfriend. That same brand of teasing titillation comes back on 'Cruel World', where she seems to taunt an ex even while throwing out enticing compliments - if we're looking for songs that are straight up fantasies, here's one of the better ones. Then there's 'Money Power Glory', which could pass for a shallow bragging track as interchangeable as any luxury rap and might even have a shade of nuance by telling the guy to run, until you run into the line 'I wanna take you for all that you've got'. It's a really sour, unflattering expression of raw greed - which would be excusable if the song did anything with it. I have no problem with the bragging, but brag better than this. And then there's 'Fucked My Way Up To The Top', a song I initially thought was a sarcastic jibe at haters until she fills the other half of the track with cooing entreaties to the guys in question - uh, unless the guy is at the top, what use would he have for this song as she clearly sees him as just another stepping stone? And then there's the title track, which conflates sex with violence in a way that sounds a lot less like a BDSM sex track and a lot more like an abusive relationship with Lana relishing every hit. Yes, there are some extrapolations saying it's about alcoholism, but it doesn't make the framing of the song any less unpleasant or the implications any less questionable or the fact that Sharon Van Etten did this same type of song eons better with 'Your Love Is Killing Me' on Are We There just a few weeks ago.

So let's ask the question: is this drama or melodrama? Well, some of that comes down to whether or not you can empathize with Lana Del Rey's character - and I really can't. Yeah, she's got a pretty voice and she does a decent version of Nancy Sinatra's cooing sex kitten vibe, but her performance as a whole is incredibly underwhelming. She doesn't have Lorde's poise and energy, Vienna Teng's creativity and gift for harmony, Sharon Van Etten's soulfulness, or Lykke Li's raw emotion, and she really lacks presence behind the microphone, especially in comparison with Born To Die. This is mostly because she spends much more time in her high, cooing voice in comparison with her richer lower and mid-range, and that's not counting the points her voice meanders through the track, either falling flat or descending into an incoherent mumble. And as for the character she creates, the lyrics give me no reason to care about her conflicts because in all of her bad situations, she does nothing to change or fix them! And if there was supposed to be greater nuance informed by her delivery to compensate for the thin lyrics, it does not come across.

Granted, the production and instrumentation does her no favours here. The richer orchestral arrangements and hip-hop elements have been mostly stripped back in favour of a bluesy, indie-rock inspired vibe - and like too much of modern indie rock, it's overloaded with so much reverb that the tracks feel suffocated, the melodies calling back to the late 60s and early 70s submerged and drowned out. And besides making Lana Del Rey's higher vocals sound even less substantial and often lost entirely in the mix, none of the dreariness has real flavour or spark - I might like some of the strings and organ and a few of the guitar licks, but they have no weight and presence thanks to this production. It's instrumentation that's supposed to evoke imagery of disaffection and distance, but it's not empty enough to imply loneliness and instead creates a really drab feel to the melodrama on display. Because even if I were to say, 'Okay, Lana Del Rey isn't going for something deep with this record, it's just snapshots of her life in the past few years, let's see if it can capture some of that thrill and energy', it completely fails because all of these situations are painted in such blurry, monochrome shades. They lack anything visceral or real - or hell, even unreal to the point where it could provide catharsis or a cheap thrill or even a pulse - at least Born To Die had 'Video Games', 'National Anthem', and the title track. And this could work if the writing or delivery could back up the drama - or hell, even if the melodies or hooks were worth remembering - but at every point where the momentum seems to build, like on 'West Coast' which began with a vibe strikingly similar to 'Pumped Up Kicks' by Foster The People - the beat is changed up for no good reason and the track completely loses me.

Look, I don't like Ultraviolence, an album that certainly doesn't earn its title. I know it's not for me, and if you're in the target demographic for this sort of thing, you'll probably like it on some level. But it's not good drama or melodrama, and when you have so many better acts that have released records in this vein in the past year, there's no excuse for this.  Because at the end of the day, this record is indulgent of Lana Del Rey's worst impulses, and doesn't have the nuance in delivery or lyrical subtext to back it up, instead relying on a veneer of class that falls away the second you start digging deeper and asking questions. But even if you pitch any ideas of authenticity out the window and you're just listening to this for the glamorous fantasies she puts on display, there's no pulse or energy to this melodrama, Lana Del Rey doesn't really command my attention or interest, and her fantasies lack even the opulent descriptions and flavour they had on Born To Die. In short, this is a record that thinks and presents itself as a Shakespearean drama when in reality it's a Twilight knockoff. From me, it's a 3/10 and no recommendation. And before you get angry and sling fire in the comments, please go check out Aims by Vienna Teng or I Never Learn by Lykke Li or Are We There by Sharon Van Etten. If you're looking for compelling escapist fantasies with which you can empathize, there are plenty better than this.

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