Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence review – great songs about awful, boring people

The songwriting on her new album is as good as or better than on Born to Die, but Lana Del Rey needs new things to sing about

Lana Del Rey interview: 'I wish I was dead already'

There was a time, around the release of Lana Del Rey's last album, that the chances of Lana Del Rey releasing another album seemed very slim. It had something to do with the way that, apparently beaten down by the controversies surrounding her background and her ability or otherwise to actually sing, she kept implying that she was going to quit music. "I don't think I'll write another record," she told Vogue magazine, shortly after Born to Die's 2012 release. "I feel like everything I wanted to say, I said already."

A cruel voice might have suggested she seemed to have run out of things to say some time before Born to Die finished playing, replete though it was with enough strong pop songs to spawn seven singles. The problem wasn't that she chose to write in character, although certain people seemed to think it was: perhaps if the internet had been around in the 1950s, it would have been packed with people demanding to see proof that Johnny Cash had actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But the sheer repetitiousness of the lyrics – in which one bad-boy boyfriend after another was pined for, and Del Rey either put her red dress on or took her red dress off with the frequency of a woman having a crisis in the changing rooms at TK Maxx – gave the impression that what the former Lizzie Grant had created was not a character, but a caricature. That in itself made Born to Die seem weirdly like a one-shot deal, and those who didn't like it asked: if she couldn't successfully sustain a concept for 45 minutes, what chance a long career?

And yet, here we are, two years on, looking at Born to Die's follow-up. Who knows what changed her mind? Perhaps the dawning realisation that all the online hipster snark about a perceived lack of authenticity isn't necessarily a barrier to selling 7m copies of your album, or perhaps the growing belief that she still had more to say. That said, anyone hoping that her describing her 2013 short film Tropico as "the farewell project" might have been Lana Del Rey's equivalent of David Bowie retiring Ziggy Stardust in order to create a new persona is going to be disappointed. It takes 50 seconds of Ultraviolence for the first bad-boy boyfriend to turn up – "you got your gun and you like to party" – and 80 before our old friend the red dress heaves into view. More troublingly, Del Rey still seems to inhabit a terrible alternate universe where literally every woman you meet is either pitiful or horrible. The former category variously includes the prostitute pathetically in love with one of her tricks (Sad Girl), the woman who likes being slapped about and simperingly declares "you're my cult leader" to her abuser (Ultraviolence), a thick hipster mooning after an indie-band guitarist (Brooklyn Baby) and a succession of ladies professing their undying devotion to callous drug addicts ("I don't mean nothing compared to your drugs … I'll wait for you," mews Pretty When I Cry). The latter features the grasping, venal "bitch" of Money, Power, Glory and the protagonist of the self-explanatory Fucked My Way to the Top. It's perhaps worth noting that Del Rey is an equal-opportunities misanthropist, and all the men in her songs appear to be arseholes, but there's no escaping the fact that her focus is on the ladies: the men are just shadowy supporting characters who largely seem to exist in order to highlight how awful her women are.

Lana Del Rey - West Coast on MUZU.TV.

Your enjoyment of Ultraviolence may thus depend on how easily you can blot this stuff out. On the one hand, it's pretty persistently reiterated; on the other, the music does its best to make you ignore it. If it isn't exactly a radical musical departure from Born to Die, Ultraviolence can content itself with doing the same thing noticeably better. Del Rey and her new producer, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, have toned down that album's tendency toward orchestral bombast, replacing it with a beautiful, gauzy shimmer of tremolo guitars and reverb-drenched drums, with a lot of attention clearly paid to subtle details: the scamper of brushed snare that propels you into the chorus of Shades of Cool; the tension caused at the start of Pretty When I Cry by allowing the vocal to crack and veer off-key; the way the queasy change of tempo in West Coast is heralded by a musical quotation from the Beatles' And I Love Her, as if to emphasise the gulf between that song's sweetly uncomplicated romance and the boozily dysfunctional relationship depicted here.

There's not a song here as good as Video Games, but you could have said the same thing about Born to Die, and overall, the writing feels sharper and stronger. Every chorus clicks, the melodies are uniformly beautiful, and they soar and swoop, the better to demonstrate Del Rey's increased confidence in her voice. It's all so well done that the fact that the whole album proceeds at the same, somnambulant pace scarcely matters. Indeed, the only musical drawback turns out to be region-specific. The tune of Old Money echoes Nino Rota's Theme from Zefferelli's 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet. You can see why they've chosen it – what better way to conjure an atmosphere of doomed, cinematic romance? – but, for British listeners of a certain age at least, it presents something of a problem, largely because Nino Rota's Theme from Romeo and Juliet is the music that used to play in the background during Simon Bates's Our Tune. This certainly lends the track an aura of doomed romance, although not perhaps the one Del Rey was after: "And then, in 1982, Jill contracted shingles and, well, things went from bad to worse … "

Of course, Del Rey wasn't to know that: when Bates was daily regaling the UK with tales of suburban woe, she was an infant on the other side of the world, and, besides, she was probably extremely busy putting her red Babygro on and/or taking it off. But she's definitely to blame for its big failing, which isn't so much that its view of the world is weird and unpleasant – plenty of rock and pop music can claim that distinction – but that it's relentless and monotonous, too: you don't have to be a radical feminist to feel wearied after a full hour in the company of Ultraviolence's collection of alternately feeble and awful women. The music begs you to overlook it, and it nearly succeeds, but for all the improvements on Born to Die, the problem with Ultraviolence remains the same: Lana Del Rey keeps repeating herself.

• This article was amended on 16 June 2014. An earlier version said Lana Del Rey's debut album sold 12m copies. This has been corrected to say 7m. This article was also amended because an earlier version said "hoves into view". It has been corrected to say "heaves into view".


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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