To know Lana Del Rey is to know her story, except she hasn’t told it to you (at least not first). As the press cycle for Del Rey’s second full-length album Ultraviolence enters its second week, so the cycle of history enters its second revolution. During the Year of Born to Die, Rich Juzwiak posted a brilliant essay that aggregated piece after piece that all told the same story, a series of microphones and amplifiers creating a feedback loop. It was difficult to read, but that was the point. The bullets of Del Rey’s story had been sorted to emphasize the tedium, to illuminate the parroting. And truly, it usually just takes one piece to know the basics: Lizzy Grant. Small shows in Williamsburg. A pulled album called Lana Del Ray a.k.a. Lizzy Grant. Reinvention. “Video Games” and YouTube. Hollywood glamor. Saturday Night Live. Gender politics. Authenticity. It’s basically a campfire story at this point, a folk legend that everyone can parrot at cocktail parties.
Two and a half years later, and we’re now in the same place. History isn’t being revised so much as it is being shaded in: she’s still a lightning rod, but now the following facts seem pretty clear: Born to Die was not a good album, Dan Auerbach helped create the full-band sound, Del Rey is swamped with buckets of water-based metaphors regarding the reverb, and Ultraviolence is ultimately a success (there are also more bullets to add, see: the feminism remark, the death wish remark, the response to Frances Bean). Add in a No. 1 Billboard debut, and it seems like Ultraviolence’s place in pop culture history has been solidified.
The critical cycle has long fascinated me, because it often feels like a funhouse of mirrors; each essay reflects back rays of context, until it’s impossible to discern from where it originated. The reflections amplify the original thought until it is canonized, until, yes, Lana Del Rey is far more confident on this album because of one lyric (“My boyfriend’s pretty cool/But he’s not as cool as me”), yes, she’s now showing that she doesn’t always need a man in her life because of one lyric (“I’m finally happy now that you’re gone”), and yes, she has a sense of humor about herself. This last bullet point is most pressing, because it represents what happens when the feedback loop seeps outside critical circles. Titles like “Money Power Glory” and “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” have led most to agree that Del Rey is firing back at critics’ perception of her, implying both that there exists a critical consensus and that she is privy to it. On one hand, of course these notions are both true. On the other, it fortifies the house of mirrors. Who’s to say Del Rey didn’t have a sense of humor before this? The serious-faced dirge of “Carmen,” the squeaked-out “I’m your little harlot, starlet!” from “Off to the Races” — could she have just been taking the piss? But then again, that was not the story being told at the time. No, the story was that Born to Die was cynical, incendiary, and too insistent on its red dress gangsta Lolita aesthetic. And it was set in stone.
It fascinates as much as it frustrates, because in both albums’ cases, the music proper is left to the wayside. Sure, there’s lip service to Auerbach and mentions of wah-wah guitar and reverb (always the reverb), but so much time is spent explaining the concept of Lana Del Rey that the music almost seems like an afterthought, or a tool that services her story. Rarely do I see connections made, like how much of Ultraviolence’s production recalls that lost album Lana Del Rey a.k.a. Lizzy Grant, or how, appropriately enough, the dusky drum loop of “Fucked My Way” would have sounded right at home on Born to Die. Rarely do I see analysis of the few moments when the live-band arrangement is set aside, like on the Greg Kurstin-produced “Money Power Glory.” And I know it’s a bonus track, but cocaine anthem “Florida Kilos” is just bonkers. I understand that readers need context to set the stage, but Lana Del Rey as a hot topic usually takes precedence over Lana Del Rey as an artist.
It’s also the knee-jerk nature of this context that irks. Del Rey isn’t the only artist who falls prey to a common critical narratives — it’s par for the course for pretty much any high-profile star — but the sudden hindsight of many of these writers’ sentiment (regarding the quality of Born to Die, for example) is jarring. For all its flame-stoking content, Born to Die remains gorgeous, a luxurious album of strings rested atop manicured beats, and killer pop hooks galore. Regardless of Del Rey’s current stance toward it, it remains a solid debut record, a consistent-verging-on-repetitious mission statement from a highly detailed character. Ultraviolence is also gorgeous, for obviously different reasons. It sprawls and sprawls, immersing the listener in its haze as Lana’s voice flips through several filters: distorted amps, reverb (yes, the reverb again), and up close and clean. Lyrically, it isn’t a far cry from Born to Die – there’s still this aspiration to luxury, the glamorization of the American upper class. And yes, Ultraviolence is a successful, fascinating album, one of the best of the year so far. My one hope is that this album’s success will allow Del Rey to rise above the context and leave behind the result of one of the most confounding artists of this century. So the story goes.