Lana Del Rey is a figure of some controversy for her suggestive lyrics, and critical debate as to the extent of her vocal talent versus her talent for publicity. She recently caused a stir when she gave an interview in which she said, quote, "I wish I was dead already," and drew criticism from, among others, Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean. Fresh Air music critic Ken Tucker hears Del Rey and her new album, Ultraviolence, as continuing a time-honored pop tradition of developing a public persona that challenges fans to decide what's real and what's not.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Lana Del Rey's new album "Ultraviolence," which debuted last week at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. Del Rey has been a controversial figure, as critics debate the extent of her vocal talent versus her talent for publicity. And she recently caused a stir when she gave an interview in which she said, quote, "I wish I was dead already" and drew criticism from, among others, Kurt Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean. Ken says Del Rey is continuing a time-honored pop tradition of developing a public persona that challenges fans to decide what's real and what's not.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST COAST")
LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Down on the West Coast, they got a saying. If you're not drinking, then you're not playing. But you've got the music, you've got the music in you, don't you? Down on the West Coast...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: As an album, "Ultraviolence" is one long, languid mood piece. If you can't adjust to its wavelength, it's likely to seem ponderous. But let the music work on you, and its slow-motion emoting can be thrilling, sometimes funny, sometimes chilling. Collaborating on many cuts here with producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Lana Del Rey performs with the kind of tremulous intensity that only masquerades as vulnerability.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ULTRAVIOLENCE")
DEL REY: (Singing) He used to call me DN. That stood for Deadly Nightshade. 'Cause I was filled with poison, but blessed with beauty and rage. Jim told me that he hit me, and it felt like a kiss. Jim brought me back, reminded me of when we were kids. This is ultraviolence. Ultraviolence. Ultraviolence. Ultraviolence. I can hear sirens, sirens.
TUCKER: Where to start with the provocations within that, the title song of "Ultraviolence"? For Del Rey to sing in the first verse that she is, quote, "filled with poison, but blessed with beauty and rage," well, she must be a bratty, egomaniac, must she not? To use that title, a phrase cribbed from Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange," to stuff the song with a quotation from the old Gerry Goffin, Carole King song "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)." Oh, my. She's not condoning violence, is she?
Del Rey, in her late 20s, has a firm grasp on pop history. She makes knowing references to '50s beat poetry and the '70s music of Lou Reed in another song "Brooklyn Baby." And on "Money Power Glory," she throws all the accusations her critics have leveled against her right back at them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY POWER GLORY")
DEL REY: (Singing) 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? You talk lots about God, freedom comes from the call. But that's not what this bitch wants. Not what I want at all. I want money, power and glory. I want money, and all your power and all your glory. Hallelujah.
TUCKER: The music on this album, the instruments and arrangements used, could have appeared during almost at any period of rock music since it began. She amusingly referred to her sound as narco-swing in a New York Times interview. The singer's frequently multi-tracked vocals sometimes turn her into her own one-person girl group. She knows perfectly well what she's doing when she titles one song "Slept My Way Up To The Top," and I changed the first word there to avoid using the real title's four-letter one. Never mind the interviews in which she claims ignorance of, or disinterest in, feminism. She's faking you out again. In the music and in her videos, Del Rey toys with old notions of attractive young women using charms other than talent to achieve success. By owning these accusations rather than refuting them, she gets to critique not just the critique of her own skills, but also the sexist prejudice that can trail female transgressors in any pop art form.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUEL WORLD")
DEL REY: (Singing) Shared my body and my mind with you. That's all over now. Did what I had to do, 'cause you're so far past me now. Shared my body and my life with you, that's way over now. There's not more I can do, you're so famous now. Got your bible, got your gun. And you like to party and have fun. And I like my candy and your women.
TUCKER: Lana Del Rey is sharp-witted, aiming to take her place among her predecessors. She is Morrissey with a better pout. She's Katy Perry with the blues. She's the daughter "Twin Peak's" Laura Palmer never lived to have. Del Rey dares you to believe that she's all trouble and impure pleasure, even as she crafts music so darkly inviting, it enters you like a knife between your ribs.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Lana Del Rey's new album "Ultraviolence." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about how James Joyce's "Ulysses" was published and banned. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.