Leading up to the release of her glorified music video “Tropico” last December, Lana Del Rey declared that the 27-minute short film would be a “farewell.” To what exactly was unclear at the time: Some speculated that the singer was leaving the business, a naïve suggestion given her preoccupation, however ironic, with the insatiable allure of “money, power, glory,” or that she was simply retiring her stage moniker. Alas, it just marked the end of the Born to Die era, though returning to her birth name—Lizzie Grant, as she was credited in early releases—would have been an apt move, as Del Rey’s third album, Ultraviolence, finds her stripping away much of the sonic, if not thematic, pretense…or at least substituting it with a new one.
The album jettisons the hip-hop-inflected baroque-pop of Born to Die and its follow-up EP, Paradise, though a few of the latter’s songs, including the Rick Rubin-helmed “Ride,” hinted at an impending evolution of this kind. There’s still plenty of woozy atmospherics, and a synth line at the end of lead single “West Coast” sounds like it was lifted from an early Dr. Dre record, but these touches, courtesy of producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, are rootsier and less polished than the trip-hop-tinged flourishes of tracks like “National Anthem.” Trip-hop is still a touchstone here, but only because of the mutual influence of jazz, blues, and film noir.
The ethereal chorus of the standout “Shades of Blue” is a decided contrast to both the song’s bleak realizations (“You are unfixable”) and expressive, deftly timed electric guitar solo, which more accurately captures the singer’s angst, while the torchy title track puts an unexpected, and perhaps unintentional, twist on ’60s girl group the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).” Co-penned by Carole King, the song was controversial at the time of its release for seemingly endorsing domestic abuse, the protagonist admitting to having been “untrue,” suggesting that she got her just deserts—and liked it. It’s an approach that’s right in Del Rey’s wheelhouse, but the ostensible offender in “Ultraviolence” could be read as not just justified, but a bona fide hero, striking Del Rey in order to save her from an apparent overdose: “I was filled with poison…I could have died right there…He hurt me, but it felt like true love.”
Regardless of the interpretation, the song provides a revealing glimpse into the Del Rey Doctrine. Her disinterest in feminism—which she infamously declared in a recent interview—is, in effect, the ultimate act of post-feminism, or rather, humanism: Del Rey’s lyrics present a woman who’s unafraid of her feelings, no matter how politically incorrect they may be. And the LDR persona gives Grant creative license to do so without apology: She isn’t condoning a situation, but simply describing one.
It makes the inclusion of “The Other Woman,” a standard made popular by Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone, an odd choice for a cover song given Del Rey is more believably cast as femme fatale than woman scorned. She’s nothing if not self-aware, as evidenced by “Brooklyn Baby,” in which she mocks holier-than-thou hipsters, but also counts herself among them (her boyfriend is, as she sings, “in the band”). The hook of the bonus track “Florida Kilos,” co-written by Harmony Korine, is marred by Del Rey’s Britney-grade vocal infantilism, and while that might make it the perfect theme song for the planned Spring Breakers sequel, the song’s pop bounce doesn’t jibe with the rest of the album’s earthier qualities, which complement the Americana imagery Del Rey’s been peddling for years.
As on Born to Die, though, too much consistency can be a long player’s Achilles’ heel. Repeated listens reveal nuances, like the acoustic guitar bristling beneath the blues-rock verses of “Sad Girl” and the male backing vocals layering the final chorus of “Brooklyn Baby,” but the album’s steadfast narcotic tempo and Del Rey’s languid delivery, doused in shoegaze-style reverb throughout, conjure a hazy picture of the singer swaying wearily in some sweltering sweat-lodge of a dive in the deep South. An appealing, cinematic image, no doubt, but one that, after 14 tracks, can prove to be enervating.