“I’m crazy” Lana Del Rey belts out on the opening track to her third studio album, Ultraviolence. Having spent most of her breakout album, Born to Die wishing death upon herself, the sentiment is not all that surprising. What is surprising is how disappointing Ultraviolence is overall. After creating a winning formula, Del Rey allows it to be tweaked by the Black Keys‘ Dan Auerbach to varying levels of success.
What made Born to Die such a success was the combination of hip hop drum programming with Hollywood strings, all helmed by Del Rey’s embodiment of every Bond girl from the 60s and 70s. That is why she was such a natural fit for the Great Gatsby soundtrack: a combination of classic America high class with a modern twist. But a lot of that disintegrates with Ultraviolence.
Dan Auerbach switches Del Rey to a live sound, combining live drums and electric guitar with little to no strings. The result is a rawer sounding record that doesn’t necessarily fit with what Del Rey is selling. “Sad Girl” is lyrically and atmospherically like a Born to Die track but instead gets a live drum treatment that feels a bit too raw for the delicacy of what Lana is singing. “Sad Girl” crescendos to a great chorus that almost feels empty without a build up of string or a low buzz of synth bass.
Not coincidentally, the best tracks on the album are the ones not produced by Auerbach. “Old Money” is a beautiful piano ballad produced by Daniel Heath. With shimmering strings on the chorus, the song stands out as the album’s highlight. “Fucked My Way to the Top,” which was cowritten with Heath, only features live drums on the chorus and no electric guitars which helps the track’s overall sound.
For her part, Del Rey does little wrong on Ultraviolence (aside from the line “I get high on hydroponic weed” in “Brooklyn Baby”). The album’s disappointment comes mainly from the instrumentation and the production. Lana is at her best when she’s bridging gaps between trip hop and Hollywood soundtrack. The sound of drug addled blues ballads does not fit her voice or her subject matter. It leads Ultraviolence to feel like a lapse in judgement for someone who has been so careful with her sound and image.