Three years ago, Lana Del Rey seemed to hatch into existence as a fully formed provocateur: She has introduced previously untasted flavors to pop music (her slow, torchy genre of choice might best be described as "Calvin Klein Eternity commercial") and shaped herself into as crafty a video star as Lady Gaga, making her racy, mysterious clips a core part of her brand. Using vintage references like they were bargain-bin lipsticks, she's been called an idiot and a savant. The fact that nobody has been able to verify which camp she belongs to – added to her outsize influence on stars like Lorde and Miley Cyrus – makes her one of the most compelling performers of our time.
2012's Born to Die, Del Rey's major-label debut, is a woozy collection of siren songs that mimics Peggy Lee's gauzy romanticism by way of Mazzy Star. Two years later, Del Rey is still a sad tomato. Ultraviolence is a melancholy crawl through doomed romance, incorrigible addictions, blown American dreams.
She has pulled back on nods to hip-hop and hired a new gun: the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced most of the LP at his Nashville studio. Auerbach introduces dashes of bad ass blues and psychedelic guitar, but Del Rey – who co-wrote every song but the closing cover of Jessie Mae Robinson's 1950s hit "The Other Woman" – holds tight to her pouty, cinematic aesthetic: the epic schmaltz of Ennio Morricone, reflected through the haze of a thousand dramatic selfies.
Del Rey muse Chris Isaak gave us 1989's "Wicked Game"; Lana answers with "Cruel World," where a reverb-drenched riff lurks behind seductively kvetched lyrics about love and madness. "Shades of Cool" – a waltz featuring a searing Auerbach guitar solo, swollen strings and Del Rey's operatic soprano – would be perfect for a James Bond film directed by Quentin Tarantino. The slinky standout "Sad Girl" is essentially Del Rey's theme song: "I'm a bad girl/I'm a sad girl," she announces, her voice slipping from childlike coo to sedated swoon. It's true that much of Ultraviolence, like Born to Die, rams the same sonic guidepost over and over. But Del Rey does allow herself to be coaxed into one striking departure, for the single "West Coast" – a deep groove that kicks her from chanteuse into frontwoman for a few glorious moments.
The album wraps desire, violence and sadness into a tight bundle that Del Rey doesn't always seem sure how to unpack. The title track – which quotes the Crystals' controversial "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" over Auerbach's liquid wah-wah – describes, with an ethereal chilliness, clinging to an abusive relationship. On "Old Money," she vows, "If you call for me/You know I'll run to you." Del Rey has declared feminism "not an interesting concept" but toys with sexual power on "Fucked My Way Up to the Top."
Most of Del Rey's lovers are unlovable, her battles unwinnable. So when she gets a shot to trade religion for "Money Power Glory," a hymnlike highlight, she grabs hold and doesn't let go. Del Rey's American dream doesn't get much more honest than that.