On Ultraviolence, her second album since her Norma Jeane-style transformation from bottle-blond folk singer to pin-curled indie lightning rod, Lana Del Rey tells us a secret: She was once the Other Woman.
Self-identifying as a mistress may feel like a minor revelation, but it gives context for the self-destructive Lolita persona that’s become Del Rey’s trademark. On one hand, the role can be read as a metaphor — the artist fully embracing her identity as the music industry’s beautiful, dirty shame, derided and cast off by critics while her debut album quietly moved 7 million copies worldwide. Or we can read it as autobiography, the experiences of the woman born Elizabeth Grant bleeding into the Lana Del Rey mythology like a red bra through a translucent collared shirt. Each of her aesthetic choices — the girlish pout, the baby-doll register, the “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” pathology — are the lamentations of a woman forced to define herself through stolen moments and dark corners. It’s a dangerous line to take, to cop to being a home wrecker. No one pities the mistress, and Del Rey knows this. But the singer isn’t concerned with forgiveness. Half confession, half redemption and written from a safe remove, Ultraviolence is, instead, a medallion of recovery.
“I’m finally happy now that you’re gone,” she sings on opener “Cruel World,” flexing her muscular lower register over steady tom-tom rhythm. “I did what I had to do, I found another anyhow.” Album closer “The Other Woman” is even more on-the-nose: “The other woman will always cry herself to sleep/ The other woman will never have his love to keep.”
For a singer repeatedly taken to task for her lack of authenticity, on Ultraviolence Del Rey comes across both honest and unguarded. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (that’s his indelible wah-wah on “West Coast”) the album strips out the sonic Webdings that plagued Born to Die (the incessant “Blue Jeans” “Shyah!” sample; the self-conscious boom-bap of “Diet Mtn Dew.”) Instead, the album evolves the full-band sound of her Rick Rubin-led 2012 Paradise EP into something raw and unadorned. It’s also steeped in pop history: The symphonic guitar work on “Cruel World” summons visions of Magical Mystery-era Beatles. The fuzzy saxophone drawl on “The Other Woman” recalls Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity.” And a more oblique reference to the classics appears on the title track, which cribs lyrics from the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” — the ’60s pop-progenitor of negative feedback loops in dysfunctional relationships.
And there are subtle nods to her own past: The strings on Ultraviolence‘s title track reuse the chord progression that opened “Born to Die.” The synth glide in the last minute of “West Coast” scans as a cute wink at Born to Die‘s hip-hop non-sequiturs. “Brooklyn Baby,” with its arch references to rare jazz records and hydroponic weed, and “Fucked My Way Up to the Top,” with its tongue-in-cheek title, come off like fuck-yous to the canon of think pieces written in her wake. Del Rey, as this writer was once assured, “reads everything.”
So, she’s most likely caught wind of the backlash to her recent open-for-interpretation sound bite about feminism. “For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept,” she told The Fader. “Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”
Indelicately put and poorly timed, the quote got her in hot water, critics’ hands already full with young Hollywood star Shailene Woodley distancing herself from the F-word. But let’s be fair: Del Rey’s personal indifference and Woodley’s feminist dodge — “I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance,” she told Time — are two different opinions. Perhaps Del Rey, who’s been held over the fire for perpetuating anti-feminist ideas is done with being forced into a conversation she never sought in the first place, just as she’s over her Million Dollar Man.
Or perhaps she’d prefer to let her music speak for her. Because taken as a whole, Ultraviolence is her most feminist work to date. It presents, without judgment, the ecstasy and agony of one woman’s choices — a bird’s-eye view of a woman suffocating, then escaping from under the weight of her man. She treats her former self tenderly: “The Other Woman is perfect where her rival fails,” she sings. But that was then. Now she’s got a cool boyfriend in her band, “but he’s not as cool as me.” And she’s out for money, power and glory. Hallelujah.