Music Times writers share an office area of roughly 45 sq. ft, which makes having face-to-face conversations totally impossible. Junk Mail is these millenials' attempt to discuss and review the week's hottest album releases... without needing to look at each other.
This week: Kyle Dowling, Joey DeGroot, Caitlin Carter and Carolyn Menyes email back and forth about Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence.
Carolyn Menyes: So, here we are at the release of Ultraviolence. Lana Del Rey is kind of a polarizing figure in music. To get this started, do any of you in this here email chain have any strong opinions on here as an artist or person or enigma?
Personally, I get a little tired of that doe-eyed, vintage sex toy shtick she has going on. Everyone talks about her authenticity as an artist more so than, like, Lady Gaga's, but I'm right up there doubting that any of this is who Del Rey really is. I don't know if that matters so much, but it's a conversation us music critics have probably too often.
Kyle Dowling: I can't say I hold any strong opinions on Lana Del Rey, whatsoever. I think she gets a lot of crap for "reinventing" herself when she didn't make it as Lizzy Grant, which I don't completely understand why. Having said that, I think there's something mysterious about her, yet I can only take it in doses.
I can totally understand your point about her "doe-eyed, vintage sex toy shtick" –– which is an awesome phrase, by the way. I think a lot of it is an act.
Caitlin Carter: This is how I see Lizzy Grant/Lana Del Rey:
She's a passionate songwriter who is just trying to get her music out however she can. She's willing to sacrifice who she is (Lizzy Grant) to be Lana Del Rey so that people will listen. Her ability to be polarizing only makes her more interesting, which in turn should get more ears on her records.
Now, I don't think she is necessarily orchestrating all of this, but she's smart enough to know what's going on and how she is perceived. I think "Lana Del Rey" is the melancholy/idealist-turned-realist side of Grant's personality. It's not necessarily an "act" as much as just one side of her, which happens to be the only one publicized because it's sexy and mysterious and makes money.
The personality doesn't always feel authentic because how could it? One side of someone's personality doesn't make a whole person. Does her music feel authentic? I think so. It's authentic for the world of her alter-ego; therefore, it's authentic for part of her personality as well.
That might be way off, but that's sort of how I see her. It can be a little annoying, but it's showbiz, baby!
Joey DeGroot: I totally think it's an act, but so is everything David Bowie does, and I don't hear anyone calling him out on his lack of authenticity. If I was a close friend of Lana Del Rey and she was putting on an act in real life, then yeah, she would be an inauthentic weirdo, but she's a pop star, and image is half the game.
In order to keep this from becoming a typically shallow Lana Del Rey review, however, I think we would put her image aside and start talking about the music itself. I wasn't impressed by the singles from her last album, but I can genuinely say that I loved at least two songs on Ultraviolence ("Cruel World" and "West Coast"), which is infinitely more than I ever would have expected. What did you guys think?
CM: I was just about to get into the music, too! I just wanted to see what people thought since it's a sort of common conversation, whether or not authenticity matters...
Del Rey really sticks to her aesthetic, for better or for worse, so there's no real growth for her on Ultraviolence, despite that saucy Dan Auerbach production. That's really obvious on "West Coast," which features a proper Black Keys' Turn Blue riff right at its start and then carries that waviness through. It's one of my favorite songs of hers to date, mostly due to that clear influence. Her voice plays off it well, too, and she actually feels passionate on this song, as opposed to her typical bored thing.
Somehow, I'm also really into "Brooklyn Baby" too. I really wish Lou Reed had survived for a few reasons, but immediately so he could have completed his feature spot on this song. I think it would've kicked it up a notch and made the song's theme of loving a rock star feel a little more real.
CC: With the album being so long (at least when you count the bonus tracks) the sound and cadences get a little repetitive, plus the sequencing didn't really seem purposeful to me. I would almost prefer not to listen to the tracks as a cohesive piece.
As far as particular tracks, I really liked her single "West Coast," when it first came out, and I still can get into it. It almost sounds as if Lana is singing on a Black Keys track, which obviously makes sense with Dan Auerbach producing the thing. I'm glad the rest of the album didn't feel like Lana Del Rey/Black Keys though. I was also a fan of "Sad Girl" and "Shades of Cool."
How about you guys?
KD: I would have to agree with Joey. I went into Ultraviolence with some not-so-high expectations but I walked away loving "Cruel World" and "West Coast" in particular. I think the latter stands out to me mainly because of the production, which we all pretty much seem to agree on. Her voice is very unique for such a song, but I think it worked in her favor. For some reason, I also enjoyed "Old Money". There's a melancholy feel to the tune, yet it comes across as beautiful. At least, to me.
CC: Now that we've touched on the production and overall sound of the record, what do you guys think of the lyrics/themes of the album?
JD: Morrissey once said that it's so easy to be controversial in pop music, because nobody ever is. As a Top 40 artist, Lana Del Rey is an exceptionally strong lyricist, with a dark, noir inspired tone that nobody else in her ranks even thinks about touching. When viewing her from a more alternative perspective, though, she's really nothing special. I wouldn't say anything here is poorly written, at least not on the level of a band like Best Coast, but it's pretty standard imagery.
However, I felt the themes of her lyrics were more fascinating than the lyrics themselves, themes such as helpless devotion to the men in her life. Plenty of people will criticize this as anti-feminist, but I find it to be much more nuanced than that. If Lana Del Rey is a character instead of an actual person, she's a tragic character who's abused by the men she loves. Even though she sings lines like "He hit me and it felt like a kiss," I don't see that as a defense of abusive lovers, but rather insight into the mind of an abused lover.
CC: I'd say that's spot on, Joey. I'd also add that her dark humor makes her lyrics more interesting.
CM: Well, Lana Del Rey isn't interested in feminism anyway, so the fact that she's pining over men in basically every song isn't an issue to her. The interesting thing about these songs though is that they're sort of generic love songs... she's not fawning over any singular dude. She has her violent boyfriend in the title track, her rocker in "Brooklyn Baby," her adulterous lover in "The Other Woman..."
Del Rey has this ability to be whoever she wants to be as I think Caitlin and Joey pointed out earlier. Shoot, she's Lana Del Rey instead of Lizzy Grant on a macro scale. In the micro sense, she transforms from song to song on Ultraviolence, being whoever she wants to be and whoever she wants her listeners to relate to. So, you know, on that point it makes for a relatable album for basically every one who chooses to listen to it, but on a whole it makes for a muddled lyrical concept.
I don't know if lyrical themes are particularly important for Del Rey's music, though. Maybe it's because they lack consistency, but I have just always thought her whole thing was the aesthetic, and that flows well through this album. It's sonically very fluid.
KD: I would have to agree with Joey again. The theme of the lyrics does seem more fascinating than the lyrics themselves. To Carolyn's point, because it all seems to be for aesthetic, it's hard to decipher if the lyrics are genuine or part of the character.
CM: It's totally a character thing.
CC: I think it's part of her character, but as I said before, Lizzy Grant is part of Lana Del Rey. So in that way, it's genuine in that way, at least for me.
I'm curious what you're thoughts are on the album title and how it relates to the themes in the album. For me, the idea of Ultraviolence means violence on a larger scale, brought forth a by a bigger presence. She seems to feel as if her world, the men in her life, the culture she lives in... her nostalgia has brought upon this ultimate betrayal that she is learning to accept or at least manipulate.
JD: Well as it was used in A Clockwork Orange, "Ultraviolence" means excessive acts of violence committed for no reason other than enjoyment, and though part of me thinks that she used the term simply because it sounded cool (not a criticism, plenty of artists do this), it does tie in to the relationship abuse theme. When she says that a hit feels like a kiss, she's enjoying this abuse (or convincing herself that she does) on some level, which could be seen as a reversal of the Ultraviolence dynamic.
CM: The "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" is an old school music reference, from those disturbing Phil Spector girl group days, by the way.
I still feel like we haven't gotten very deep into the meat of Ultraviolence. Does anyone have any nitpicks? Things they particularly dug?
KD: One nitpick I have is I wish the album had more tracks like "West Coast." The song has a great vibe to it, and I feel if there were more songs like it on Ultraviolence it would have added a great deal to the album. As it stands now, I enjoyed the record but I still have no desire to see Lana Del Rey live.
CM: See, I heard she was worth seeing live... I'd check her out if I got a free ticket or something.
My main gripe with Ultraviolence is that each song more or less sounded the same to me. The same aesthetics, production value and even notes were used all throughout the album and it just sort of drags in the way that I don't want to listen to another dreamy love ballad back-to-back for an hour. Individually, there are some real gems here. We've discussed the merits of "West Coast" at length, and I can't praise "Brooklyn Baby" quite enough. As you pointed out earlier, too, Kyle, "Old Money" is a really beautiful piece of orchestral pop. But all together, for 14 tracks... man, I need an upper after this record. It just feels really long.
CC: That's basically my main complaint as well, which I mentioned earlier. It's not really the type of album you can listen to in one sitting unless it's like background music to your depressing day.
I wish there were more variety in her sound. I often hear songs written by other acts that I think Lana's voice would work really well on even though they are different from her usual sound. That's what I'd like to see next from her. I don't need a total departure but at least something a little more stimulating for the 51 minutes I'm spending with it.
I'm sure some DJ will mix a few of these for a more up-tempo feel at some point, though.
JD: I agree that the album was too long, even without the bonus tracks. As much as I loved "Cruel World," it does not need to be a six-and-a-half minute song. This album could have easily come in at under 40 minutes, and it would have been much better.
CM: I wasn't really a Lana Del Rey fan going into Ultraviolence, and I don't leave the album listening experience liking her a whole lot more. While there are individual nuggets of gold on this album, I think the best way to describe Del Rey's whole "thing" is that she's a one-trick pony. I want to see her gallop or something, and I don't want to have to wait for Cedric Gervais to save her or anything again.
CC: I have had a complicated relationship with Del Rey since I first saw her on SNL. I went from thinking she was a desperate fake to understanding (or trying to understand) what's she is aiming to do with this alter-ego. As is the case with most of her music, I like singular tracks but have never really gotten into one of her albums as a whole. I feel like I'll probably throw a track or two on a playlist and call it a day. Hopefully she'll branch out a bit on her next release. I'd like to see her do a Paul McCartney/Foo Fighters thing and work with a variety of producers who understand her vision.
KD: I, too, wasn't a big fan of Del Rey going into the album. But I also wasn't a hater. What I've taken away is that I'll probably be one of the many who chicken pick their way through her catalogue over the years, occasionally in the mood to listen to something somber. One thing that remained constant, however, is my lack of desire to buy a ticket to see her shows.
JD: Though it's overlong and frequently dull, there are some moments of pure genius on Ultraviolence, and Dan Auerbach's ethereal production is absolutely gorgeous. Lana Del Rey's improving as a vocalist as well, so hopefully her third album continues this upward trend.