Indie singer Lana Del Rey's debut album, 2012's Born to Die, has quietly sold a whopping 7 million units—twice as many copies as Beyoncé's last album, for those keeping score at home. But worldwide success has done little, it would seem, to diminish this controversial chanteuse's self-stated death wish.
At least twice in the weeks leading up to the release of Ultraviolence, she's talked publically about wanting to die. "I love the idea that it'll all be over," she told The New York Times. "It's just a relief, really. I'm scared to die, but I want to die." In the U.K.'s Guardian, she said, "I wish I was dead already. … I don't want to have to keep doing this."
Such morbid infatuations are, not surprisingly, reflected in this dreamily disturbing and deeply depressing effort. Ultraviolence features Lana narrating tales of romantic carnage and dysfunction, drug addiction and physical abuse, all the while sounding like a disembodied ghost charged with recording every devastating detail.
We perhaps get a glimpse into Lana Del Rey's troubled psyche on "Old Money," where she asks, "Will you still love me when I shine/From words but not from beauty?/My father's love was always strong/ … Yet still inside I felt alone/For reasons unknown to me."
"The Other Woman" suggests that a mistress' sensual charms will never fully win the heart of a cheating husband, and that real love is only found in the imperfect reality of family and marriage, not in the fantasy of an affair ("The other woman has time to manicure her nails/The other woman is perfect where her rival fails/And she's never seen with pin curls in her hair/The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume/The other woman keeps fresh-cut flowers in each room/There are never toys that's scattered everywhere/ … But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep/The other woman will never have his love to keep/And as the years go by, the other woman will spend her life alone, alone").
On "Money Power Glory," we hear about a man who's interested in spiritual things: "You talk lots about God/Freedom comes from the call." But …
Lana Del Rey does not share his interest: "That's not what this b--ch wants/No, that's not what I want at all." Instead, she sings, "I want money, power and glory." And she's conniving to take it from the spiritual dreamer she's with ("I want money and all your power, all your glory/Hallelujah, I wanna take you for all that you got"). Later she adds drugs to her most-wanted list ("Dope and diamonds, dope and diamonds, that's all that I want").
Repeatedly, Lana's "heroines" suggest that they're more than willing to prostitute themselves to get what they want. On "Cruel World," we hear, "Share my body and my mind with you/That's all over now/Did what I had to do/I found another anyhow" A bit later, she combines religious hypocrisy, hints of violence, more drugs, suggestions of lesbian flings and deep relational dysfunction in the space of just four lines: "I got your Bible and your gun/And you love to party and have fun/And I love your women and all of your heroin/And I'm so happy now that you're gone." We hear a similar mindset on "F---ed My Way Up to the Top," the title of which (repeated six times in the chorus) tells pretty much the whole story.
On "Shades of Cool," Lana has hooked up with a distant, promiscuous, hardhearted drug abuser who'll never give her what she needs ("He lives for love, he lives for his drugs/ ... You are unfixable/ ... Your heart is unbreakable/ ... I'm one of many"). Still, she insists, "He loves his baby, too." Another version of that story turns up on "Sad Girl," where a woman stays with a man even though she knows he's got another lover. And there's even more of this sad theme on "Pretty When You Cry," as a woman waits perpetually on a man who never comes through for her and who loves drugs more than he loves her ("All those special times/I spent with you, my love/It don't mean s--- compared to all your drugs").
Abuse crosses over from emotional to physical on the deeply disturbing title track, "Ultraviolence." Here, Del Ray romanticizes being pummeled by her beau, singing, "He hit me and it felt like a kiss/ ... He hurt me, but it felt like true love." Then she promises her abuser, "I will do anything for you, babe/Blessed is this, this union/Crying tears of gold, like lemonade/ ... You're my cult leader/I love you forever/I love you forever/This is ultraviolence."
More drugs infiltrate "Brooklyn Baby," a song that also finds Del Ray apparently hitting back at her many critics with this retort: "If you don't get it, then forget it/So I don't have to f---ing explain it."
Writing for The Washington Post, Allison Stewart said of the emotional devastation on display here, "Ultraviolence offers the first glimpse of her now fully realized id: Del Rey is beautiful, jaded and doomed, in love with some American past that has never existed. She's the star of her own airless psychodrama, enraptured by death, happily subservient to a parade of loser boyfriends. She's a lounge singer on the hipster Titanic."
Even if somehow Del Rey is positioning any or all of these songs to rip open the scab of what it might be like to live in a constant state of codependency and abuse—rather than talking about those things as if they're merely the status quo, as it seems she is—it's hard to know where to start when it comes to the breezy, detached way she chronicles such soul-crushing relationships. Most heartbreaking—and dangerous, too—is her description of a lover's beatdown as "a kiss" that "felt like true love."
Again, if there's satire or a cautionary message lurking, it's nearly impossible to suss out of Lana's tender description of the cruel monster she willingly stays with.