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Del Rey Bricks Herself In Behind a Conventional 'Wall of Sound',
This review is from: Ultraviolence (Audio CD)
Music critics the internet over have been expressing polite surprise that Lana Del Rey selected Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys to produce 'Ultraviolence' (2014), her third album. But a careful reading between the lines suggests that their posts have actually been a roundabout way of saying, "Wow--what a huge mistake."
With 'Born to Die' and 'Paradise' (2012) Del Rey--whose given name is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant--created one of the freshest sounds in contemporary music and, simultaneously, a playful, somewhat vampish torch singer persona to go with it.
Songs like 'Born to Die,' 'Video Games,' 'Summertime Sadness,' 'Ride,' 'Bel-Air,' and 'Yayo' all have a raw, stripped-back 1950s vibe, one veiled in a crisp Angelo Badalamenti-esque mystique and then additionally layered in an aural collage of hip hop, house and electronica samples, beats and effects.
Few younger artists have reflected the talent for melody that Del Rey has shown: musically speaking, the best songs on 'Born to Die' and 'Paradise' are actually little more than several irrepressible pop hooks merged together at intervals and then repeated, and repeated again.
Del Rey's creative 'formula' is one that, on paper, shouldn't work under any circumstance in any configuration, but does work, and works miraculously. But that is what artistry, alchemy and genius are all about: Del Rey almost single-handedly made pop music interesting again.
But now the question arises: is Del Rey the actual genius--or her producers?
Patrik Berger, Jeff Bhasker, Chris Braide, Emile Haynie, Justin Parker, Rick Nowels, Robopop, Al Shux, Dan Heath, Tim Larcombe and Rick Rubin all worked on the production of her first two major label releases and contributed enormously to their creative success. Their 'amateur-sounding on purpose' approach has been critical in defining Del Rey, and it was probably their genius that allowed the vocal strain and broken notes in Del Rey's performances to remain present on one track after another.
While 'West Coast,' the brooding first single from 'Ultraviolence' slightly evolves the classic Del Rey sound (and sounds as if it was recorded under entirely different circumstances from the rest of the album, making the early-release track a kind of bait-and-switch), the production on most of the other tracks--'Cruel World,' 'Shades of Cool,' 'Brooklyn Baby,' 'Sad Girl,' and the title track--strips the zeitgeist and everything distinctive out of Del Rey's sound and replaces it with 'polished,' 'mature' and 'sophisticated' traditional rock arrangements (the album was recorded with a seven-piece band).
The oddly plodding opening track, 'Cruel World,' has the thump-thump backbeat of the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs' (1967), while 'Pretty When You Cry' steals the opening cords from the Rolling Stones' 'Angie' (1973) and has a vocal reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull's original recording of 'Sister Morphine' (1969). The bombastic electric guitar solo on 'Shades of Cool,' not intended ironically, underscores everything misguided about the album.
The brief tinkling piano on 'Burning Desire' (2012), not one of Del Rey's better songs, has more verve than anything Del Rey and Auerbach have produced here.
The crucial 'Lana Del Rey' persona is no longer in the foreground, or necessarily present even in the background, on many of the tracks, despite the fact that what made Del Rey's initial work so appealing was her immediate, plaintive presence in the forefront of every song. On the balance of 'Ultraviolence,' the Del Rey persona and voice, at least as listeners have come to know them, have largely disappeared under a 'wall of sound,' so that almost any talented female artist recording today could be the creative personality at hand--Neko Case, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Katy Perry, Pink, even Lady Gaga.
Where is the subtle Del Rey charm, the intelligence, the mischievous sense of fun, the daring, the wit? 'Brooklyn Baby' attempts to be conventionally witty--and thus isn't witty at all. The effervescent persona Del Rey presented on 'Born to Die' and 'Paradise' was someone the listener spontaneously sympathized with and wanted to accompany on her strange and curious journey, but the Del Rey of 'Ultraviolence' seems little more than an emotionally stunted harridan to whom nothing new can or will ever happen again.
The earlier albumns were awash in moments of emotional catharsis, but there is not a moment of authentic catharsis anywhere on 'Ultraviolence,' though 'Old Money,' which riffs on Nino Rota's theme for 'Romeo & Juliet' (1968), comes closest. Despite its title and tough girl stance, all of the 'Ultraviolence' tracks combined don't have the bite of 'Gods & Monsters' (2012).
Needless to say, Del Rey's occasional rare talent for conveying pure visionary experience in a credible manner is absent as well.
To compound an already egregious situation, Auerbach has flattened Del Rey's melodies, compressing them as meticulously as her previous producers kept them buoyantly afloat. It isn't hard to imagine what Rick Rubin would have made of 'Cruel World,' 'Brooklyn Baby' or 'Florida Kilos,' since Del Rey's signature hooks and melodies are as present as they've ever been. Only 'Money Power Glory' is allowed any Oomph.
It is difficult to conceive how Del Rey thought this approach, which almost completely obliterates her carefully-crafted artistic and public persona, was a wise move. If Del Rey felt that Lorde, or any other performer, had stolen her signature sound, then Del Rey should have stood her creative ground instead of abandoning that sound to a lesser entertainer, who now owes it, while Del Rey is left with the dead end of 'Ultraviolence.'
'Ultraviolence' reflects self-sanitization and sterility, not maturity. Its sound is ingrown, antisocial and narcotized. Del Rey's earlier songs were also highly calculated, but that calculation was clever, subtly ironic and consistently kept the listener slightly off-kilter, while the manufactured sound on the current release is boring and standardized. Even before the sophisticated listener hears a given song in full, he effortlessly anticipates the arrangements and can almost hear Auberbach suggesting, "Let's put a little blues guitar..right...here," and predictably, the instrument emerges.
Del Rey apparently isn't aware that an entire generation of female rockers--from Linda Ronstadt and Ann Wilson to Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar--watched their initial rightful fame become badly tarnished by external pressures to become "technically proficient," "respectable" and "more mature" vocalists and songwriters. In the next generation, the same syndrome affected Madonna and Tori Amos at various points in their careers. And now it has happened to Del Rey, who has seemed far too perceptive to have been seduced down that particular rabbit hole.
'Ultraviolence' is certainly not a total loss. 'Old Money' is a brilliant piece of songwriting, and the extra tracks 'Black Beauty' and 'Is This Happiness' both have something of the old school Del Rey magic.
Del Rey wisely applies Camille Paglia's theory of spousal abuse to the title track, and though the themes explored on 'Money Power Glory' and '****ed My Way Up To the Top' were exhaustively mined and commercially exploited by Madonna over thirty (30) years ago, Del Rey sings both as if she's committing an authentic act of cultural transgression. Since both fail to be clever on any level, any attempted stabs at irony fall embarrassingly flat. Like the 'Shades of Cool' guitar solo, the point of view adopted on each both dates Del Rey and simultaneously maroons her in the present.
Why didn't Del Rey include upbeat songs like 'JFK,' 'Hollywood' and 'Angels Forever,' all of which have both strong melodies and an elusive, elegant power? The persona behind these three songs is also recognizably the Del Rey her audience has come to know.
Critics who routinely embrace only the 'lofty' and 'the ambitious' will probably support 'Ultraviolence,' at least in theory. For the balance of Del Rey's admirers, the album may give new meaning to the words 'summertime sadness.'
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Showing 1-10 of 51 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 18, 2014 5:57:35 AM PDT
The Doctor says:
Very good review. I agree completely with your statement about "West Coast" sounding completely different from the rest of the album and much more in-line with her two previous releases. This is also why it is the strongest track on the album and the first single. Overall, the is over-polished and loses a good of the unique quality that was present in her prior albums.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 18, 2014 6:36:27 AM PDT
Full agree, Doctor. I think another reviewer says it best and succinctly: 'Ultraviolence' lacks modernity. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Posted on Jun 18, 2014 11:36:35 AM PDT
Thank you for this review. You expressed perfectly in words what I could not. This is a very sharp and accurate review of an artist muffled by "professional" mediocrity. UltraViolence is like Lana Del Ray's sharp sound wrapped in a warm cashmere sweater- and that is not a good thing.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 18, 2014 5:53:15 PM PDT
Thank you, Throckmorton Scribblemonger.
Over the course of my life, I've watched one artist after another--particularly female rock vocalists--succumb to what I call "But the members of the Beatles couldn't actually PLAY their instruments!" syndrome, which usually comes from academics and professional critics who take themselves and their subject far too seriously, and which unfortunately has a quite real affect on artists who should know better.
Let's hope Lana wakes up. I'm very disappointed with 'Ultraviolence,' though 'Old Money' is a brilliant piece of songwriting. For the time being, it looks like Del Rey's life ain't "sweet like cinnamon" anymore.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 20, 2014 1:53:09 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 20, 2014 1:56:25 PM PDT
FIFTH HORSEMAN says:
Well, there's me writing half a bible underneath another review (Sophomore Slump... Big Time, June 20, 2014 By Matthew Cash) as a reaction to your comment on it. And just like I do, you observe production qualities very carefully. Commented on another site that 'Old Money' is indeed 'the' track on the standard album version, it features the very likewise production & striking heavenly melodic strings, as does most of 'Born To Die'. As far as the bonuses of the deluxe version go - without having seen your own review over here until just now - I've also cited some 'inspirations' that immediate sprung to mind when hearing 'Florida Kilos'. You're welcome.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 21, 2014 2:22:33 PM PDT
Thanks, Horseman, I went over and read your other comments under Matthew Cash's review. I think 'Florida Kilos,' like 'West Coast' and 'Cruel World,' was written in her earlier style, but then just flattened out by Auerbach's production. You're right, his production of this album isn't good except technically, which a lot of listeners--perhaps most--are clearly falling for, even though it's extremely dated without being 'retro' or a clever homage to or pastiche of 1970s classic rock.
Myself, I keep hearing what her earlier producers would have done with these songs, though I'm not sure anything would have saved the title track, which, besides its POV, isn't interesting at all, and I'm not sure any producer could make it so.
The persona of 'Lana Del Rey' here is just unlikable--and mildly unlikable, certainly not engaging--'boring' and 'stupid' are two words which come to mind. What is interesting about proclaiming 'I Want Money Power Glory' or 'I ****ed My Way To The Top' in 2014? Madonna put all of that to bed over two decades ago. 'The Other Woman' is really dreary, and I liked your gramophone analogy.
So it's not a total loss, but certainly a major disappointment. I'm interested to see what the sales will be here in America and abroad, and whether it will have the sort of international Top 10 success so many of her singles had in western Europe. Critics all over the web have praised it for the most part, and those that gave it a poor review seem to object to Del Rey herself and not 'Ultraviolence' in particular.
Thanks for writing.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2014 9:26:57 AM PDT
But we do know that Paul is one of the greatest musicians in modern history. I like Lana, but would rather spend time with her in bed than listen to her music...which is the point. She overplays her alleged sexiness unlike her hero Madonna. And someone who tells me her private parts fast like Pepsi is probably awful in bed. In the end, too much sex, not enough substance. Disposable junk food music.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2014 2:36:40 PM PDT
Anthony, I appreciate your honestly about your intentions. I enjoyed the witty, largely playful sexuality of 'Born to Die' and 'Paradise,' but now that her vision has turned literal, coarse, and violent, it is far less appealing. Even the cover art of 'Ultraviolence' is naturalized, and thus in a sense literalized. I haven't come to appreciate UV much more, and it's even dampened my enthusiasm for her earlier work.
I am glad about the iTunes special track, 'Is This Happiness," which has the simplicity and beauty of some of her earlier work.
It may be that other unreleased, better songs from the UV sessions will be made available in the near future; already, the European remix of 'West Coast' is making the rounds, and I like it as much as the album version, perhaps more. While I don't think much can be done with the UV tracks in terms of remixes, you never know. Something interesting might manifest, but since so many of the UV songs lack the strong melodies of 'Blue Jeans' or 'Video Games,' it seems unlikely.
Posted on Jul 8, 2014 5:24:28 PM PDT
J. Richie says:
all true, i guess. was it the beatles or george martin? both. neither. one. the other. 1963 was just as cynical a time as now, i think, maybe not as in your face, internet now i guess.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 9, 2014 7:24:09 AM PDT
Thank you, J. I think I'm being very objective in my observations above. The work of so many artists, from the Beatles, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes, early Genesis, and Kate Bush in the 1980s, as well as dozens of others, made it difficult to know where the band or performer ended and where the art of production began. Today, of course, we realize how important studio production is, and realize it is an art in itself, which I don't think many people did in the 1960s and 1970s.