Lana Del Rey is something of a pop onomatopoeia. Her voice, like her Hollywood-circa-1939 name and persona, is lush, languid, a seductive instrument that makes the singer sound as if she couldn't be bothered to move from the fainting couch. In another time, another medium, the 28-year-old would have given hardboiled P.I. Philip Marlowe even more reasons to drink.
Del Rey (real name: Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, a native not of Los Angeles but New York City) released a new album this week, Ultraviolence, in which she adds even more red-lipstick edge to her femme fatale image. The LP follows the surge of two singles: No. 1 hit Summertime Sadness, which Miley Cyrus covered in concert, the latter only hoping to gain some of LDR's smoky mystique; and a fantastic re-do of Disney classic Once Upon a Dream, the once-chirpy Sleeping Beauty theme made malevolent for Maleficent. The latter is far scarier than anything heard in the Haunted Mansion; it's her crowning achievement.
Del Rey follows few rules, and why should she? Her voice can drop so low and slow, she often sounds like she's Tibetan throat singing. Ultraviolence has neither the dance-floor sugar of Summertime Sadness, nor does it include Once Upon a Dream. It doesn't even have a true single. Instead, with the production help of the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, she strives for a fever dream, La La Land through the eyes of David Lynch. Her voice is lovely, her music gauzy, but her lyrics are often jarring, routinely slapped with an "explicit" tag on iTunes (see 2012 song Cola, which I can't even begin to write about in a family newspaper).
From the sound of it, including Ultraviolence's opener, Cruel World, and then the taboo title cut ("He used to call me D.N./ That stood for Deadly Nightshade"), Del Rey has never had a relationship that didn't resemble Bonnie and Clyde's. Her men are hot and hot-headed; she is, too. And things can get bloody, brutal. She's gorgeous but lethal, a romantic with a pearl-handled pistol. Auerbach digs the neo-noir vibe, layering jangling guitars on top of buzzing keyboards; the album sounds as of it were recorded in black and white.
If you're thinking of noise-pop progenitors the Velvet Underground, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star, you're right on target. This is ridiculously sexy stuff. But if there's a drawback, it's that the effect is so somnambulant, it can blur together, hot mood music, sultry background buzz. Auerbach throws some variation in there now and then: He adds effective guitar plucks and a big drum to standout track Brooklyn Baby. The most radio-ready song can't even be played on the radio: [Bleeped] My Way Up to the Top, co-written by Del Rey (as is most of the album), has a hypnotic beat and a "Go, baby, go" hook. Just don't let your mom hear it.
Billboard says Ultraviolence is poised to debut at No. 1 when sales figures come out. That probably won't quell the haters who say Del Rey is all about artifice and make-believe, that she plays a part and too often glorifies bad dudes. Nevertheless, the reason Del Rey is popular is because she, like Amy Winehouse before her, is so different from her pop peers. It may be fake, but it sure sounds fresh.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.