I’m gonna try something crazy here and stage the unimaginable – a double review. See, the problem is, I want to review both the new Lana Del Rey album and the new Sharon Van Etten album, but they’re pretty much the same. They’re both completely miserable women being completely miserable amidst a flood of guitars and atmospheric sounding filler. They’re both pretty good, but I couldn’t review one without comparing it to the other. So instead this is happening. These two New Yorkers might seem worlds apart – Del Rey, the chart-topping star who cashed in on her sadness with splash Born to Die; Van Etten, a gloomy indie songstress releasing her fourth album – but musically they’re bound by the same principles of downbeat soulfulness with a poppy, rocky edge.
Del Rey recruited Dan Auerbach (he of Black Keys and petty disputes with Jack White fame) to lend a hand on Ultraviolence and his presence is everywhere. His production creates a more focused, more carefully curated atmosphere, and his guitar lends a steel and vibrancy to energise her wails of sadness. The album is propelled by sharp licks like that that kicks off Cruel World, and the album is really a move away from her more poppy roots. It also, mercifully, ditches the ‘gangsta’ element of Del Rey’s ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ stylings. Del Rey seems to have learned what sort of artist she is on Ultraviolence; one who works best when her soul pouring is reserved, soulful and classy, as on Shades of Cool. As such, her vocals are deployed much more effectively, with timed bursts of her range to inject some emotion and some scale to her sound.
Van Etten, by contrast, already knows what she is. Her voice isn’t as ‘pretty’ as Del Rey’s is, but it works well with her sound. She’s less soulful, and less enigmatic in her relentless misery, but she trades that for an edge drawn from the likes of PJ Harvey – as seen on album highlight Your Love is Killing Me where she bellows “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/ Stab my eyes so I can’t see” (that’s some proper ultraviolence). Van Etten is simultaneously more reserved and mournful than Del Rey, but also more punchy. Are We There Yet is driven by the same kind of fuzzy, almost bluesy guitar licks, but also by the distant rumble of drums and the plaintive tapping of a piano.
It’s sparse but effective, and Van Etten is more of a rural, empty kind of music to Del Rey’s low-lit, basement bar soul. The differences can probably be communicated on album covers alone. Are We There Yet is a black and white shot of a head out a car window as a rural scene rushes past; Ultraviolence is a black and white photo of Del Rey looking like a classical movie star with her guard down.
Del Rey looks classy but miserable and this extends to her album. She harmonises with grace around strings and carefully layered waves of ambient filler, creating a much more full, lush sound than Van Etten. Her harmonies also work better, largely due to the fact she simply has a better voice. That’s not to say Van Etten’s harmonies are bad, but they’re more mixed. On Break Me they’re essentially all that’s off with a great track, but immediately afterwards, on Nothing Will Change, they pretty much make it. Del Rey’s work on the title track outshines both, but lacks the grounding of Van Etten’s unaffected vocals.
Lyrically they remain difficult to discern. Del Rey is more urban, and more liable to lapse into cliché, but lyrically Ultraviolence is a marked improvement over Born to Die. She introduces a greater sense of narrative to her songs, as on album closer The Other Woman, and pulls off her admittedly limited repertoire of sad, abusive love songs without growing too tiresome. The attempts at a soulful mystique – “He used to call me poison/Like I was poison ivy” – are somewhat trite and don’t really work when the next line is “I could have died right there / ‘cause he was right beside me”.
Van Etten is less grounded in conventional tropes of tragic love, and her lyrics are more evocative in their rawness and simplicity. Were it not so melodramatic Are We There Yet could almost sound earnest, but it is nonetheless more confident and more obviously personal than Del Rey’s ‘I’m sad, I’m crazy, I’m in love, he’s a bit of a shit’ schtick. Van Etten’s also perhaps less relentless in her wallowing, if only because the album ends with laughing at an outtake, something that’s unimaginable in Del Rey’s super serious, super slick production. In fact, by the album’s end I was sure that Del Rey was someone who I never wanted to have a conversation with. Van Etten at least seems like she has a sense of humour.
Both albums suffer in terms of pacing due to their fascination with the blues, and particularly slow down in their latter half. Ultraviolence begins brilliantly, whipping off three of the best tracks off the album in short order, but by Old Money (perhaps even earlier, maybe Pretty When You Cry) its grasp on your attention has loosened considerably. Perhaps it’s the similarity of the songs. Del Rey has more range to her voice, but less to her sound. Van Etten mixes things up, as on the poppy Our Love, but Ultraviolence’s formula is so clear cut that the songs blend into one, leaving you only really able to remember whatever you heard last.
Both artists push track lengths, particularly Van Etten, and this causes Are We There Yet to become more of an effort to persevere with than the more accessible Ultraviolence. Around Tarifa the album loses itself, recovering for Break Me and then wandering off again for the last two tracks. And at over 50 minutes both albums are overlong for how uniform their themes and sounds are.
Worlds have collided in this review, but the result is two albums that nail their gloom with style. Del Rey’s class and accessibility perhaps pip Van Etten’s crunch and personality, but only just. After the wicked backlash to Born to Die and Del Rey’s pretty terrible contributions to the already terrible Great Gatsby, I had doubts about Del Rey as an artist. There was the odd track I liked, but much to dislike. Here she wins me over at last. Van Etten? Well, I hadn’t heard of her, to be honest. Are We There Yet has caught my attention, though, which I’m sure will make her feel much less miserable.