Lana Del Rey poses so powerfully that her voice can sometimes feel like a liability.
On Friday night the image-obsessed pop star ended her current tour – a brief North American run meant to stoke anticipation of her upcoming album “Ultraviolence” – with a sold-out show at the Shrine Expo Hall. She came into the gig with some forceful buzz behind her in a pair of strong new singles taken from "Ultraviolence" as well as a performance at the much-discussed wedding of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
So when Del Rey sashayed onstage in a pale pink baby-doll dress as her four-piece band stretched out the sexy but sinister groove of her song “Cola,” she seemed to be moving with even more woozy authority than usual. An appealingly lurid stage setup adorned with flowers, palm trees and an oversized rattan throne – it was all very “Island of Dr. Moreau” – contributed to a royal vibe.
Then Del Rey started singing, and the illusion began to evaporate.
It's not that Del Rey can’t sing. In “West Coast,” the new album’s lead single, she sounds great exhaling lines about silver starlets and queens of Saigon over a hazy goth-guitar arrangement that recalls a blend of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” and “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak. A welcome shift from the lugubrious trip-hop textures of her 2012 debut, “Born to Die,” the song promises much from “Ultraviolence,” which the singer made with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Yet Del Rey’s voice might be her least interesting attribute, a mere tool she’s utilized to construct a pop career full of deeper provocations: her visual flair (as captured in countless photographs and some instant-classic music videos), her fluid ideas about female archetypes and the distinctive way she toys with the celebrity industrial complex. But at the Shrine, the act of singing seemed to distract Del Rey from these more potent talents for myth-making.
You glimpsed those skills during her breakout single “Video Games,” which she delivered with the gravity of a head of state, her arms moving with reserved elegance. And she was good while taking on “Young & Beautiful,” her swooning contribution to the recent “Great Gatsby” soundtrack that’s also said to be one of Kardashian’s favorite songs.
Acting out words about romantic desperation with a stage veteran's charisma, Del Rey was creating live-action images with her body that inspired young women throughout the venue to pose for copycat photographs surely destined for Instagram. (In a sign of how tightly Del Rey controls her likeness, the singer’s handlers required media organizations wishing to photograph Friday’s show to agree to restrictions on the use of those photos. The Times declined.)
Yet during her performance of “West Coast" you found your eyes drawn away from Del Rey, who suddenly seemed to lack animation, and toward the song’s black-and-white video, which played on a large screen above the stage.
And only rarely did she summon the sly wit she oozed at April’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where she made miniature production numbers – little scenes of queen-bee hauteur – out of lighting a cigarette and asking how much time she had left onstage.
At Coachella she further bolstered her star power by descending from the stage to greet fans pressed against a barricade. She recycled the bit near the end of this show, following a rendition of her hit “Summertime Sadness” that inspired much of the crowd to sing along.
Here, though, the act felt hasty, as though it had become an obligatory means of maintaining her cult – not unlike singing itself. It was one more intrusion of the real world into the dream life she’s so expertly crafted.