"Everybody knows that I'm a mess," Lana Del Rey sings on her third studio album, "Ultraviolence" (Polydor/Interscope). But, of course, everybody knows she's just being a tease. After erstwhile folk-popster Lizzy Grant reinvented herself as the "gangster Nancy Sinatra," Del Rey became an actress as much as a singer.
She's Kim Basinger in the pulpy "L.A. Confidential" or Julee Cruise's cooing ingenue on the soundtracks to David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks." She's the femme fatale with a drug habit and an attraction to guys even more screwed up than she is.
Her 2012 album "Born to Die" established the character, and "Ultraviolence" follows her through a series of typically misguided relationships: He uses her, she uses him, and in the end she winds up alone — sometimes in triumph (the girl with the most cake, in the words of Courtney Love), sometimes in a puddle of despair.
The arrangements are more stripped back than on the lush "Born to Die," with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach as producer. He's a daring choice, but the musical changes are subtler than one might suspect, with Del Rey singing in more open space against a guitar or piano rather than over plush orchestration. The strings and tympani-style percussion remain, but they're deployed more sparingly. Reverb bulks up Del Rey's small voice, and sometimes it's multitracked into a choir. But on "Pretty When You Cry," Auerbach and Del Rey decide to keep the bruises exposed, her voice wobbly as she fesses up, "I'm stronger than all my men … except for you."
The plot turns on soap opera themes of cruelty, drugs and sadomasochism. "Cruel World" suggests that the narrator's toxic relationships are never really over, even after both lovers think they are; they just keep dragging everyone down. The title track quotes the Crystals' stomach-turning ode to domestic violence: "He hit me and it felt like a kiss." By the end, obsession gives way to cynicism. The closing "The Other Woman," a Jessie May Robinson song covered definitively by Nina Simone decades ago, finds the kept woman alone and forgotten near the end of her life.
It's all over-the-top, exacerbated by its narcotized atmosphere: druggy, draggy tempos and druggier singing. If one buys into the idea that Del Rey is acting — the notion that she is playing a character, that these songs are satire instead of the mawkish musings of a would-be glamour girl — "Ultraviolence" almost qualifies as a parody. Unfortunately, there's not enough punch in the songs to make listeners care whether she's joking or not.
Lana Del Rey
2 stars (out of 4)