If You Call For Me: Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence at 10

The strange weather of Lana’s long-misunderstood third album showed just how authentic an alter ego can be, setting the tone and texture for the most profound work of her career.

Music Features Lana Del Rey
If You Call For Me: Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence at 10

Who was Lana Del Rey, before we started believing what she shared about herself? For a while, back when the mainstream pop audience she’d wandered into didn’t trust the authenticity of an alter ego, critics cared a lot about what Lana might be making up. There was the prodigal childhood, the full pout, creative autonomy—orgasms (or whatever they sounded like). That debut, originally recorded under her given name, Lizzy Grant, had sat in limbo at the small label she’d signed with as a Fordham metaphysics undergrad for two years before she bought it back and began compiling VHS wedding footage for the music video that would make her famous. Everybody has been chasing that girl since then, some glimmer of a person-behind-the-mask. Whoever Lana Del Rey could be, and how that stacked up to who she’d been, seemed like a far hotter pursuit than hearing out her stabs at a full and true identity. Why take her word for it?

Ultraviolence was Lana’s word—and a decade on from its June 2014 release, it’s just as good. First announced at the Los Angeles premiere of her 2013 short film Tropico, a loose interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in three sonnets set to songs from her Paradise EP, Lana’s third record arrived as both an indictment of her presumptive armchair analyzers and a diaristic dive into the dress up bin. Like the wild draft that ultimately becomes a final copy, Ultraviolence played the heaviest-handed cards of high-femme disillusionment in Lana’s deck. Between the Harmony Korine co-writes and cold hard cash-counting, Ultraviolence set the tone for Lana’s most profound work to come: the undersung liminal ballads of Chemtrails Over The Country Club and the undisputed Great American Classics of Norman Fucking Rockwell!.

The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Ultraviolence, had all-star session visions for the folk demos Lana showed him. Although she initially approached him with an album she thought was near complete, Lana loved his easy “yes” and spontaneity, that he thought “it was natural that someone would like what they got on the first try.” They recorded daily in his Nashville studio on 8th street, layering the tracks with six-piece instrumentation and a color-wash of crackling gray. Covers of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman” and the sardonic provocations driving “Fucked My Way Up To The Top” and “Money Power Glory” leaned into the muddied sense of reality Lana left journalists to navigate. On “Brooklyn Baby,” inspired by a missed meeting with Lou Reed the day he died, she trades pin-curls for feathered hair and hydroponic weed, a beatnik damsel still leagues cooler than the guitarist guy she’s been traipsing through town with (“My boyfriend’s pretty cool/ But he’s not as cool as me.”)

Where the sonnets and arrangements grew more technically arresting than Paradise—like the earth-shaking 6-minute dirge “Cruel World,” Lana’s greatest album opener, or the stormy movements of “West Coast”—Lana’s vocals are rougher-hewn, and completely sublime on Ultraviolence. Her shaky Saturday Night Live debut, clad in white lace and a Seven Year Itch neckline, would remain a talking point through her 2023 Coachella set in custom Versace. But Ultraviolence leaves little question toward the kind of vocalist Lana could be, years before Jack Antonoff ever slid into her inbox. Trilling and wailing like a bird before she dips into the sort of ephemeral high-alto note that drives shape-shifting “Shades of Cool,” Lana leaves it all out there, even when she’s maneuvering behind the ski-masked alter ego moving weight on the Korine co-write on the Spring Breakers-coded side quest “Florida Kilos.”

In addition to “Kilos,” the Ultraviolence deluxe-edition introduced two more tracks that could’ve stood to receive slots on the original edition: “Black Beauty,” still a staple in her rarer and ever-more-coveted live sets, and “Guns and Roses,” a spare sunset reflection on a “motorcycle love divine” that still crosses her mind like a nostalgic arrhythmia. “I should’ve learned to let you stay,” she whispers on the latter, wondering amid the empty foam of a receded wave why getting swept up wasn’t enough. Like the Paradise masterpiece “Ride,” “Guns And Roses” stands out as a strong early indicator toward the folk-rock textures she’d reach dizzying heights with later in her career. But the simple clarity of her lyrics also proves the time-honored point that the most personal pain often reaches the most people. Maybe your lover never gave a fuck about Guns N’ Roses—maybe you wonder if you should have married them anyway.

Parsing apart the Nabokov-coated corners of the Lana Del Rey iconography often meant ignoring her reverence for the beat poets, Bob Dylan or Whitman’s most clearly-rendered sonnets. In the hazy sludge of Ultraviolence’s weathered psych-rock, dripping with reverb and slides, Del Rey also layers in the gnarled vocal techniques of forebears like Fiona Apple, who she emulates with uncanny precision at the end of “Pretty When You Cry,” and Hole. (Courtney Love and Grimes joined Del Rey on one of her more reluctant tours, the 2015 Endless Summer run.) There are even nods to Billie Holliday and pioneering girl group the Crystals—who she interpolates in a favorite line to feed the “is she a feminist?” fire on “Ultraviolence”: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” (Nestled in the golden hour of Tumblr’s sleazy side, the Ultraviolence vinyl flew off the shelves in an exclusive sales deal with Urban Outfitters.)

“It has been a lifelong ambition and desire to have a defined life and a defined world to live in,” Lana grinned in one of her earliest interviews as Lizzy Grant, before she’d ever publicly played at being another woman. Ultraviolence’s vignettes, wherein the Parliament never fizzles out and there are endless new tragedies to live, accomplish that universe in every hydrangea bush and baby-smooth $20 bill. When she interpolates ‘60s girl group classics and plays the ultimate “wife who dies at the beginning of the movie” in the title-track’s grainy visual, the form is the function. Lana’s scenes of debutante glamor and deserter justice pass like phases of the moon, oceanic and allusive and not always the musing of a girl’s girl. She was ducking questions on feminism before anyone at Red Scare gave it a try, but she never much resembled an edgelord (heard of a song called “Margaret?”) She just stumbled over what it means to her to cherish physical, tangible love, hedging around the defining details of the ones humming in her past.

As a near-decade of “prioritizing authenticity” among female superstars buoys a glut of new vinyl campaigns and ad spots, Ultraviolence stands on its 10th anniversary as a testament towards the authentic life as strange and fragmented—too big for just one Lizzy Grant to capture. As artists like Chappell Roan and Charli XCX toy with new avenues towards relatability, Ultraviolence looks more and more like a definitive text on showing your cards. There’s a reason she inspired her managers’ own company, and Ultraviolence was Lana Del Rey’s first big leap into that “defined creative world,” a buck at the expectation she would ever labor over music intended to apply to everybody else. The other woman, after all, spends her life alone. Perhaps that’s what makes her so very much like the rest of us.

Hattie Lindert has written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The Face, Los Angeles Review of Books, and more. She lives in Brooklyn.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin