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Original release date: 13 June, 2014
Label: Interscope / Polydor

Arriving as pop feminism reached fever pitch, Ultraviolence held a mirror up to the quiet misery that underlies heterosexual love for so many women. It brought Lana Del Rey closer to her audience, while setting her even further outside the mainstream.

You say that you want to go to a land that’s far away/ How are we supposed to get there with the way that we’re living today?” growls infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones during a March 2022 episode of InfoWars, as the opening chords of Money, Power, Glory, the hymn-like eighth track from Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence from which he’s quoting, play in the background. “The real money, power and glory is just a side-effect of freedom,” he counsels his listeners. As the song fades out, he seamlessly transitions into one of his trademark rants about globalists and psychological warfare. 

Jones is not who immediately comes to mind when picturing the average fan of Lana Del Rey, a modern pop icon predominantly associated with teenage girls experiencing their first major breakup, and young women unable (or unwilling) to learn the obvious lessons from countless dalliances with men that aren’t any good for them. This hasn’t stopped him, however, from playing the track over 25 times on his show. She is, in his eyes, the embodiment of everything he loves: patriotism, liberty, America.

After more than a decade and nine albums, it’s easy to mock Jones’ literal reading of Del Rey’s art, but he’s no more of a fool than her earliest critics, who dismissed her music as the pathetic mewlings of a self-destructive dilettante who had evidently missed the entire third-wave feminist movement (and wasn’t too interested in the fourth-wave either). Ultraviolence was Del Rey’s third album, and it’s perhaps her most beguiling, taking her usual themes – devotion, fantasy, American mythology – into an ever dreamier realm that entrenched her aesthetic while further obfuscating her standpoint.

Produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and recorded in live takes with a Nashville band, Ultraviolence swapped the experimental pop and hip-hop of Del Rey’s previous records for jazz, guitars and psychedelic rock. Cinematic strings and her soaring, sweeping vocals take centre stage as she serenades the listener with ballads about bourbon, broken men and her unsuccessful efforts to fix the latter. Pitchfork called the record “a Concept Album from a Concept Human”, and ten years on, it still feels like the idea of Lana Del Rey at its most fully actualised, haunted by sorrow and drowning in reverb. 

Critical reception for Ultraviolence was largely positive, at least compared to the diatribes about ‘artistic authenticity’ that followed the release of her debut, Born to Die. But this goodwill only extended to the record’s sound – reviews were not as forgiving when it came to its subject matter. Commentators continued to frame her as a passive, pouting victim who had now run out of worthy things to sing about. The Independent claimed Ultraviolence was “more of the same, but less”. The Irish Times referred to her as “a role model of bruised and damaged goods”, and The Guardian bristled at its “collection of alternately feeble and awful women”. It seems noteworthy that two out of three of these reviews were by middle-aged men. 

This isn’t to say that the record was a flop, far from it. It debuted at number one in 12 countries, including the UK, and held the record for the largest first-week album sales by a female artist in 2014, until it was overtaken by Taylor Swift’s 1989 (of course) five months later. “There’s something hugely cheering about the way Swift turns the persona of the pathetic female appendage snivelling over her bad-boy boyfriend on its head,” wrote yet another middle-aged man, remarking on a track from Swift’s album, which he believed “bears a hint of Lana del Ray” [sic]. But in a musical climate then awash with club-ready paeans to self-esteem, Ultraviolence set Lana even further outside the mainstream. 

“Lana Del Rey’s moody torch songs found their muse in feminine abjection, a clarion call to the melancholic for whom the girlboss era’s imperatives left something to be desired” – Meaghan Garvey

“The pop music of the time hinged around themes of empowerment, ‘feminist’ in a sloganeering, social-climbing way,” says music journalist and writer Meaghan Garvey. “Lana wallowed at the other end of the spectrum. Her moody torch songs found their muse in feminine abjection, and were a clarion call to the melancholic for whom the girlboss era’s imperatives left something to be desired.”

Amid all the hand-wringing about Del Rey’s obsession with (and reliance on) men, and her alleged glamorisation of violence and abuse, few seemed to consider that rather than perpetuating or promoting harmful stereotypes about passive femininity, she was simply holding a mirror to the quiet misery and degradation that underlies heterosexual love for so many women. Del Rey understands that to be a woman who loves men, or at least a certain type of woman who falls for certain types of men, is to suffer. Why not add swooping violins and turn that suffering into something beautiful? 

“I like that luxe sound of the word ‘ultra’ and the mean sound of the word ‘violence’ together. I like that two worlds can live in one,” Del Rey mused in an interview with Complex around the album’s release. On the title track, in which she controversially references The Crystals’ He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss), she also sings “I could’ve died right then/ Because he was right beside me,” leaving it up to the listener to decode whether this is because of uncontrollable delight at her lover’s presence, or if the same presence is a threat to her life.

Perhaps, then, Lana Del Rey’s true talent is her ability to play two audiences at once with the same message. Just as her constant allusions to American Romanticism and cultural myth are as much heartfelt elegies as they are ironic, self-mocking digs at the ways we fool ourselves when swept up in the dream of an ideal, so Ultraviolence is a self-aware meditation on what it means to be the type of woman for whom love and surrender are inextricably linked. Or, as she puts it herself on Brooklyn Baby, a winking homage to America’s past fused with a perspective entirely rooted in the present: “If you don’t get it, then forget it/ ’Cause I don’t have to fuckin’ explain it.”