Why is Lana Del Rey so fascinating yet so boring?

#1 Review in America: Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence”

July 02, 2014 / by / 15 Comments

Each week we make Stephen listen to the #1 album in America. This week, Stephen listens to Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence.

For as endlessly intriguing as Lana Del Rey might be, her second LP Ultraviolence can be astoundingly boring.

There’s no denying the compelling character Del Rey has built around herself. A smoky, petulant alto who digs Tennessee Williams and Chevy Malibus, a vixen and a femme fatale obsessed with fatalism, a girl sent to boarding school at 15 for alcohol dependency who studied metaphysics at Fordham, an enchantress, an antiheroine, maybe a secret feminist, maybe an anti-feminist, a millennial who loves playing Kennedy’s with A$AP and name-checking Lou Reed, and a pop star with the appearance of Jessica Rabbit after shopping at Urban Outfitters. Everything about Lana feels so contrived, but there’s a fundamental American-ness inherent in her trying to be somebody she’s not by cobbling together a pastiche of pop cultural tropes.1 And people eat that shit up.

So how come everything about Lana is so fascinating except for her music?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments on Ultraviolence. Her voice is rich and swirls smoke rings around your mind while you’re wrapped up in the cinematic amalgamation of Americana that Del Rey has retrofitted on her album. The three best tracks on the album — “Shades of Cool,” “Brooklyn Baby,” and “West Coast” — all feature waves of guitars and orchestral ornamentation grooving behind Lana’s beautiful voice before resolving into some truly monstrous hooks. Props to producer Dan Auerbach for fusing his guitar-shredding sensibilities with a pop act like Lana, but the wealth of credit for the songs goes to Del Rey herself.

The trouble with Ultraviolence, though, is that all of the songs sound the same.

Lana’s got a formula down: Warble blithely about nondescript boyfriends and beat poets, slap some baroque-as-fuck reverb on that shit, release album art cribbed straight from Instagram, and BOOM you’ve got an album. That formula works great for individual singles, but an LP full of “Hollywood sadcore” feels more like a joyless dirge than a summer album. Not that every artist needs to be making upbeat songs come Memorial Day, but 11 tracks of Lana’s pouting is a lot to soldier through.

Despite the darkness overcast over Del Rey’s debut Born To Die, the excitement on that record was tangible. You could tell that Lana enjoyed creating something so fresh and inventive, from the audacity of titling a song “Diet Mountain Dew” to that heartbreakingly-sexy “is that true?” breathiness uttered throughout “Video Games.” Born To Die had well-crafted narratives to match its eclectic and dazzling instrumentation. Ultraviolence, on the other hand, can make a thinly-veiled shot at Lady Gaga sound boring.

In 2012, Del Rey came across as vivacious and bombastic and unpredictable. Now she sounds as tired and stodgy as the old money she sings about.