Wound Down Inside

Ultraviolence’s suffocated soars frustrate critics’ attempts to feel good about Lana feeling bad

Ultraviolence talks about some ugly feelings, but its music is really pretty—one of the tracks is titled “Pretty When You Cry,” after all. Alexis Petridis, writing in the Guardian, describes the album as “a beautiful, gauzy shimmer of tremolo guitars and -reverb-drenched drums, with a lot of attention clearly paid to subtle details.” Its music is so calm and peaceful that many reviewers find it boring: Petridis calls it “relentless and monotonous,” and Laura Snapes uses more euphemistic terms—“stately” and “languid”—to describe the album’s lack of musical tension, intensification, or variation. Nearly every review I read remarked on the album’s “unwavering” (Snapes) pace: 11 songs, all at about the same staid tempo, with little in the way of peak, break, or drop. Del Rey may talk about fucking her way to the top (on “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”), but the music sure doesn’t seem to climax or climb.

The album’s climaxes aren’t absent, just muted—infra-ed rather than ultra-ed. For example, “Cruel World” contains two extremely diluted soars. Popularized by EDM-influenced pop, the soar is a compositional technique for generating sonic tension and energy. Most EDM soars build rhythmic intensity up to the limits of human hearing by repeating a percussion sound at increasingly fast intervals that eventually pass the point at which we can distinguish individual beats. The buildup is usually followed by a measure of either silence or some sort of scream or siren, which culminates in a flourish or “hit” on the downbeat of the next measure. Maxing it out beyond the point of diminishing returns (into the “ultra-” sonic, you might say), soars crash a song so that its phoenix-like rise sounds all the more spectacular.

“Cruel World” suffocates its soars. The first part of the soar begins at the pre-chorus when a drum comes in on the offbeats (“Got your Bible…”). Adding rhythmic ornaments in the drum part till there’s a clearly audible drum hit on each beat, the intensity of rhythmic events builds over the pre-chorus, peaking at the end and spilling over into the chorus proper with an ever-so-gentle and reserved pair of sixteenth notes on the pickup and downbeat of each of the last two beats in the phrase (and an extra eighth note on the “and” of four). The chorus continues to build, peaking on the line “you’re fucking crazy.” Pulsating guitar reverb emphasizes this “crazy,” making it the most musically unstable part of the song. This reverb echoes EDM pop’s use of treble synths to build rhythmic and timbral intensity. Usually these synth lines build up over a measure or two to give added oomph to a downbeat. This guitar reverb, however, comes in on a downbeat and unfolds over the rest of the measure, spinning out rather than building up.

Undercutting the sonic impact of a downbeat is not a new thing. In 19th century European “classical” music, composers softened a song’s harmonic resolution by placing the cadence on an off-beat rather than a downbeat. This technique was called, infamously, a “feminine ending”—“feminine” because it’s a weaker cadence than a conventional, on-the-downbeat one. Might Del Rey be “feminizing” the soar by decelerating it, pulling it back rather than pushing it harder?

Maybe. Though “Ultraviolence” sounds like just another entry in the recent-ish spate of flat, anticlimactic pop songs, it doesn’t share their sonic post-maximalism. This post-maximalism pushes brostep- and EDM-style sonic maximalism even harder, so that maximalism itself shifts registers, sublimating into something else. Alex Niven argues that this sublimation isn’t limited to the sonic:

I think that what we are seeing now is something like the sublimation of the Soar. Piling layers of artificial sonic squall on top of a track began as a way of achieving commercial hyperbole, a classic case of steroid-injection to allow a chorus-hook to soar above its airwave rivals. Of course, industry pop is still motivated by this instinct, but now The Soar also seems to be giving expression to more genuinely populist sentiments. [emphasis mine]

The soar, a sonic metaphor for an individual rising above competitors, is sublimated into populism. Or, the soar’s implicit I is transformed into we. In this short passage, Niven implies that this shift in perspective from I to we is the effect of pushing already maxed-out soars even further into the red. That’s the sublimation: sound becomes perspective.

Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” is a great illustration of this sublimation. Its main soar begins when the percussion drops out and Miley noodles around on some “yea-eh-ay-aeh”s. Instead of dramatically soaring up to or pausing in anticipation of the downbeat of the chorus, Miley’s vocals decrease in rhythmic intensity as the song gently swells into the “aaaaaand” of the chorus’s first line. This soar is more molehill than mountain. Even though every individual in the song is partying out of bounds, from the macro-scale perspective of the we, no individual case seems to be particularly transgressive. That’s why the first line—“It’s our party we can do what we wanna (no drama)” isn’t contradictory, and a song about wild gaga partying is really low-key (like “Ke$ha on Benadryl”). The muted soar is the effect of the shift in narrative perspective from I to we.

Though Ultraviolence shares “We Can’t Stop’s” relaxed, anticlimactic music and its dedication to individual excess, Del Rey still speaks as an I, not a we. Everything is decidedly close up and singular: what I want, what you did (to me). Her songs don’t treat her excesses as something other people can or want to identify with—they’re not the hard-partying fun of Miley or Ke$ha, or Gaga’s supposedly artistic and activist boundary-pushing, or evidence of our matured perspective, as in Lorde. Rather, Del Rey’s songs depict her excesses as singular and individuating. As Mark Richardson says in Pitchfork, “she’s an utterly distinctive figure in popular music—not part of a scene, with no serious imitators—and befitting someone completely off on her own, she’s lonely.” Rather than sublimating the soar (or its correlate, “gaga feminism”), Del Rey internalizes it, using its energy to subject herself to the strictest of scrutiny. From this perspective, for example, “Brooklyn Baby” is a merciless self-parody. The music’s flatness expresses Del Rey’s siphoning of pop’s energy for her own self-vivisection. Ultraviolence undercuts itself both musically and narratively.

Perhaps we feel like Del Rey is a bad girl because she perverts the soar instead of sublimating it? Petridis’s review suggests as much:

But she’s definitely to blame for its big failing, which isn’t so much that its view of the world is weird and unpleasant—plenty of rock and pop music can claim that distinction—but that it’s relentless and monotonous, too: you don’t have to be a radical feminist to feel wearied after a full hour in the company of Ultraviolence’s collection of alternately feeble and awful women. The ... problem with Ultraviolence remains the same: Lana Del Rey keeps repeating herself.

For Petridis, what’s objectionable about the album isn’t, say, its glorification of domestic violence, but its failure to make something new and exciting out of all that pain and damage. Del Rey make critics uncomfortable because her music doesn’t sublimate their characters’ personal damage into something these critics can feel good about, either aesthetically or politically.