Everything We Love About Ultraviolence

Our special guest columnist today is David Brothers, who co-writes the amazing blog 4thletter! and who has the distinction of probably being the #1 most-beloved-by-Strawberry Fields Whatever individual on all of the Internet/planet. Apparently David was partly inspired to start listening to Lana Del Rey after reading a silly post I wrote about sea anemones last year, so I thought it would be cool to rope him into talking about everything we love about Ultraviolence here, at great length. What follows is our Lana convo, with thoughts on funeral soundtracks, Memphis hip-hop, romance novels, role-playing, weird jogging, and unabashed lameness. You can also find David at I Am David Brothers Dot Com, as well as on Twitter. -Liz


DAVID: My first reaction, when I sat down to think about Ultraviolence, was that it's an album with a lot of songs about love that are delivered in an unromantic way, sometimes deeply so. It's just a feeling right now, one I'm still trying to suss out, but it's real fascinating to me. I'm used to the standard romantic mode for love songs, where you build up your buttercup because you love them so much. The relationships she sings about are in the past tense or sound more like a power struggle than a partnership.
       I think that's part of what makes the album feel as dark as it does, the way so many of her lovers or relationships are painful or beneath her or gone. I felt like a lot of the songs on Born to Die upended the usual love song format, throwing a knowing slow wink and sly smile into the proceedings and giving the songs a little extra fat to chew on. This album takes it a step further, making me feel like Del Rey isn't above romance, exactly, but she's definitely over it.

LIZ: That's really funny and cool to me, because in my mind Ultraviolence is super-romantic. I think so much of why I love Lana Del Rey, and Ultraviolence especially, is she lets me access this teenaged part of myself that's obsessed by semi-trashy love stories with an almost-tragic bent to them. In particular I'm thinking of this Alice Hoffman novel from 1977 that I loved when I was 14 - it's called Property Of and it's about a girl who falls in love with a drag-racing junkie and ends up strung out too; I read it so many times as a kid that the cover fell off. Reading the opening paragraph of this New York Times review of that book (about how Alice Hoffman "views life as if through the jagged prisms of a broken whisky bottle or a haze of heroin" and how "[a]lthough much of her material is familiar - the corner candy store, warring teenage gangs, leather jackets, young love in customized cars, dope and disaster - she brings a fierce personal intensity to it"), it's like the critic could be talking about Lana Del Rey.
      One thing I appreciate about LDR is how her songs are like semi-trashy/almost-tragic romance novels in song form, and most of that appreciation's got to do with my wanting kids today to get their imaginations fed in a way that's dark and fucked-up but ultimately gunning for some sort of transcendence. I mean I know that the youth of today have their dystopian YA books and their vampire shows, but that kind of reality-bending seems so constrictive. The danger and desperation in those stories is all so tense, but there is nothing tense about Ultraviolence. Lana Del Rey's un-tense enough to the point of being asleep, because everything is all a dream. She's singing about all these bad men and even though there's some uncomfortable-making shit going on, experiencing herself through bad men is her way of trying on different selves. There's so much possibility in her romanticism.
       And I know that Lana said she thinks feminism is boring, but when she whisper-sings about stealing the guy's gun and bible in the second chorus of "Cruel World," it gives me goosebumps. It reminds of that thing Mallory Ortberg said, about how real feminism is robbing men blind after sex.


DAVID: I just found out Gangsta Boo and La Chat, two rappers from Memphis I've liked since I was a kid, released an album together. It's called WITCH, and my discovery of that was quickly followed by finding this amazing pulp cover for a novel called WITCH, an acronym meaning We Intend To Cause Havoc. It was perfect because that's basically what the album is about - wreaking havoc, with a side of treating dudes the way women are often treated in rap. These ladies have been working that lane very well for years, and I feel like it's well in line with LDR's stylings here, too. She's like a gun moll who's doing it for kicks and discovers she's a better gangster than her partner. She's hiding bloody canines behind a pretty smile, you know? There's something cool about listening to somebody play that role.

       Another thing that struck me is kind of a Lana Del Rey-in-general thing, the way so many of her songs are specifically about her being in a certain situation or playing a certain role and the friction that comes from the juxtaposition of What She's Doing and Where She Is. On Born to Die she sounded like a modern woman situated right in the middle of classic Americana, like the joke about going back to high school with your adult mind so that you're way ahead of the game. It gave the songs a nice level of friction, half-embrace and half-commentary. It followed through to the video for "National Anthem," I think.
       The friction's not as front-and-center on Ultraviolence, but it's still there. She plays a damsel and damsel-in-distress at various points, but it's never with the sense that she needs to be rescued. In fact, I think one of my favorite lines on the album is "Yeah my boyfriend's pretty cool, but he's not as cool as me," from "Brooklyn Baby." It comes at the end of a song about her perfect Brooklyn life, and it's not a refutation, but it's interesting. As much as she likes what she has, she knows she could have more if she wanted. There's something cool about that, something I like thinking about.

LIZ: That point about LDR being "modern woman situated right in the middle of classic Americana" is so much more generous and insightful than so many of the reviews I read when Born to Die came out. A lot of reviewers got so worked up about her referencing things like shitty beer and Coney Island and big hair, as if her upbringing and background should limit what kind of imagery she's allowed to incorporate into her lyrics - which is so boring and puritanical and lame. Lana Del Rey is a storyteller, and a very good one; she chooses the images the best serve the story and I think that's got lots to do with why her songs are so consistently successful in building a really powerful mood.
       Re "Brooklyn Baby": I've read a few Ultraviolence reviews in which the critic seems wildly embarrassed by the lyrics, which I get intellectually but don't get on any other level. It's one of my favorite songs on the album, partly because it's one of the most joyful; it reminds me of being 15 and pretending to like Jack Kerouac and being impressed with myself just for carrying Dharma Bums around in my stupid bookbag. There's a giddiness and sense of adventure in taking on new identities, and LDR embodies that entirely on "Brooklyn Baby," and I adore her for it. She's like the opposite of those well-to-do pseudo-bohemians you see around L.A. (and probably in other cities): the gypsy jet-setters, the ayahuasca-retreat-goers and wearers of $300 kaftans, the bougie-boho types who seem to have sucked all the fun and imagination out of playing at being something you're really not. Lana's not like that at all - if anything, she's much more similar to Pia Zadora as the girl beatnik in Hairspray. I wish those two could hang out together and be best friends. I want them to get high and iron each other's hair.

      Oh and the first 20 or so times I listened to "Brooklyn Baby," I thought she was singing "My jazz's collection's rad" and not "My jazz collection's rare." I'm so happy it's the latter. I'm happy she made it that unabashedly lame.

"Unabashedly," that's such a good word and totally apropos. I think a lot of what she's doing on this album is unabashed, particularly in the way she talks about sex and love. I expect a certain amount of nuance from her, I think, because so much of what she's saying feels like coded language.
       Like, "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" has an obvious surface-reading, right? It's about abuse and relationships. But because I'm so used to trying to figure her out, I kept thinking about the line and how it fits on the album and the idea of rotten love, and that led to a kiss - a warm gesture, an expression of love - being seen as abusive in the rear view mirror, like hindsight kicked in for her and she realized how she was being played.
       Maybe it's reading too deeply, maybe it isn't, but I like that she's making music where I can mull it over a little while listening. She's willing to be unabashedly uncomfortable and obscure, too, and that really works for me. It makes the album feel bigger.


DAVID: I like how funereal Ultraviolence sounds, how so much of it is down instead of up. The lyrics talk about lost or rotten love - "Share my body and my mind with you, that's all over now" - and the music is the perfect accompaniment. She sings with a wink and a twist, giving Ultraviolence enough juice to never actually be a true downer. It's just gloomy in a way that works for sunny days (sometimes you need an umbrella) and rainy days (sometimes you wanna get wet). It's much less upbeat than Born to Die, which had its own gloomy segments.
      I feel like you could cut a rug to a few songs on Born to Die. It feels very poppy and fresh, despite the razor blades that are hiding behind its smile. Ultraviolence feels a lot more like something you'd want to sit and vibe to, rather than getting down. "West Coast" comes closest, I think, but even it feels very heavy and slow, something you'd slow dance and sway to rather than bop. I did a lot of running to Born to Die last year, but I can't see moving to Ultraviolence.
       Which isn't a complaint, exactly, but another thing I found remarkable about the album. I wonder how it sounded before Dan Auerbach stepped in and they reworked her previous material, whether or not she was always chasing this kind of sound for Ultraviolence. It puts me in mind of Norah Jones, honestly, as she's another person who can make absolutely catchy and incredible gloomy songs that make you feel like a million bucks.

LIZ: I actually have done some Ultraviolence jogging; it's weird but it works. People seem to make a big deal about Lana Del Rey idealizing powerlessness, but she has her moments of owning power too, and I get a total rush when that happens. Like at the beginning of "Cruel World," the way her voice drags on the word "happy": oh my god. Same for her singing "Life is awesome, I confess" in that crazy accent at the start of "Fucked My Way Up to the Top," and basically everything about "Money, Power, Glory" (especially all the "Hallelujah"s). Her bravado adrenalizes me. 


LIZ: Here's a cute interview from 2008, when Lana was Lizzy Grant and blonde and lived in a trailer in New Jersey. They ask her to describe herself in three words and she picks "confused," "floral," and "odd," which seems like it could still stand today. I was just reading through the lyrics to Ultraviolence and there's actually not many flower references (there's the blue hydrangea in "Old Money" and the fresh-cut flowers in "The Other Woman," and maybe she's sort of singing about actual roses on "Guns and Roses"), but I feel like the overall mood and aesthetic of the album is very floral: lovely and ornamented and sometimes poisonous. To me Lana Del Rey is like the opposite of the poem "Spring" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose last two lines are:

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers

      The poem's about how all the pretty spring flowers don't cancel out the fact that death happens, possibly. Lana Del Rey is also babbling (or, more accurately, murmuring) and strewing flowers but not like an idiot: like a creepy genius who knows flowers are so closely tied to death, if you think of things in a "pushing up the daisies" sort of way. For her, flowers are both the distraction from the death and a way to get closer to it. I want to start an Angela Carter-only book club with Lana, so we can together-read sentences like "The springing boughs hung out a festival of brilliant streamers, long, aromatic sprays of green, starlike flowers tipped with the red anthers of the stamens, cascading over clusters of leaves so deep a green and of such a glossy texture the dusk turned to disks of black glass those that the sunset did not turn to fire." That's my number-one LDR-related literary fantasy right now, and my second is for Mary Ruefle to come out with a new edition of Madness, Rack, and Honey
updated with a lecture about Ultraviolence.
      Also, a few Sunday afternoons ago, after listening to Ultraviolence all week long, I went out and bought myself a bunch of purple flowers and rescued a bourbon bottle from the recycling bin and used that as a vase: a very Ultraviolence flower arrangement. Flowers are some of the cheapest beauty: my bouquet cost three dollars, or you can just pick them out of the ground. I like how LDR usually sounds a little cheeky when she's singing about money and cocaine and fancy dresses and fast cars, but she'd never be a brat about thinking flowers are cool. Lana is so sweet and gracious like that.


  1. i love your writing Liz! you make everything so magical

  2. I looooove this article as i can never sum up my feelings about LDR into words which is exactly what you've done!♡