By far the darkest of Del Rey's albums, "Ultraviolence" blends glamour and groove in ways edgy enough for the indie sphere to relish yet catchy enough to reach Billboard's number one slot, as the album did this June. The slow-burning "Shades of Cool," one of the songs produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach -- who Del Rey thanks in the liner notes for "bringing fire back into my life" -- is undoubtedly the soundtrack that would play if James Bond were to meet Rufus Wainwright. And the unabashed "Fucked My Way up to the Top" takes a break from its self-evident Waspy whispers for a '60s-girls-group interlude.
With its unhurried cadence of blues rock, jazz and funk, Del Rey's latest oeuvre reasserts her status as pop music's badass anti-heroine. Indeed, rising above her naysayers has fortified the beguiling songwriter. A distinct aloofness pervades the record, both in lyric and in tone, as the songstress mocks her antagonists time and again with precision and condescension.
Now, much misguided scrutiny has focused on whether Lizzie Grant (the singer's birth name) is really as poised as her stage persona. "SNL" aside, most of her loudest critics have accused her of lacking capital-A Authenticity, but there is no odder insult to volley than to accost a performer for putting on a performance. If Tom Waits can sing like he's an exhaust pipe, why can't Lana Del Rey sing like she's Cary Grant? As another songwriter once put it when indicted for being a rip-off artist, "If you think it's so easy...do it yourself and see how far you can get."
Among the record's greatest strengths is how its energy feeds on itself, each song bigger than the last. In "Brooklyn Baby," Del Rey salutes the hipster borough which spawned her career just as she salutes nostalgia itself: "They say I'm too young to love you...They think I don't understand the freedom land of the Seventies." In "West Coast," a sexy summer soiree which manages to rhyme "icons" with "Queens of Saigons," coquettish pouting vocals pair perfectly with Auerbach's echoing electric.
With nods to Ernest Hemingway and Lou Reed sprinkled throughout the album, the anthemic "Money Power Glory" is the cherry atop this whipped frenzy, with Del Rey literally singing "Hallelujah" to her own prowess.
It's worth noting that the tenderest parts of "Ultraviolence" more than hold up to its more spectacular displays of ego. Adultery is an especially recurrent theme in Del Rey's music and seems to bring out the sultry saloon singer in her, whether she's flaunting it ("Being a mistress on the side [might] not appeal to fools like you") or regretting it ("The other woman will always cry herself to sleep"). While the record would already be robust without its siren-to-songbird switch, the moments of doubt provide welcome relief from the onslaught of bravado.
Of course, one of the most fascinating traits about Lana Del Rey is her bravado, her propensity for the peculiar. Taken together, her music and style are mysterious in the way the rich and famous were once mysterious, before the 24-hour news cycle. By witnessing that cycle's eagerness to tear down those it builds up, and especially by responding with art as brazen as "Ultraviolence," Del Rey proves herself worthy of being mentioned alongside stars of that bygone era. As she sings in "The Other Woman," which may very well be Lizzie Grant singing about Lana Del Rey, "To be by her side [is] such a change from old routine."