Stateside, at least, Lily Allen has always been dubbed the antithesis of whichever female pop star is most popular when she releases an album. It is exhausting stuff, I’d imagine, so much so that she wrote the title track of her new album Sheezus about such matters. Don’t let the title (or controversial first single “Hard Out Here”) fool you, though — Allen’s not out for blood with this record.
Allen’s position as a sort of witty anti-pop star mean that she has been expected to buck pop star trends while still playing the divas’ game of constant reinvention. Her career is characterized by contradiction: she’s always mixed salty and sweet, often to extremes, and also mixed sass and vulnerability.
Take her debut album, 2006’s Alright, Still, where the two best tracks represent this dichotomy: “Not Big” (as in, his penis) is a diss track that makes Kate Nash look like Sandra Dee in comparison; “Littlest Things” is the original Sad Girls’ Guide, filled with the kind of wistful thoughts about ex-boyfriends that creep in right before bedtime. Then, on 2009’s brilliant It’s Not Me, It’s You, there’s “The Fear,” the quintessential critique of the pop machine’s greed, where Allen’s sarcasm is as sharp as barbed wire, and “Who’d Have Known,” a sunny ode to defining the relationship wherein Allen coos the word “baby” earnestly.
These contradictions have made Allen the pop singer of choice for fans who remain skeptical of the major label hand that feeds, where pop is either music to dance to or to soundtrack heartbreak. But they also place a huge dependence on her “realness.” This pressure, along with the expectation to reinvent, means that you start to understand why she waited five years, one husband, and two kids later to write a new record. How many dimensions does Lily Allen’s personality need to possess for her to have career longevity?
Much of her newfound domestic bliss does indeed turn up on Sheezus, with mixed results. You gotta give her credit for writing an aggressive, Auto-Tuned banger about her hubby putting a ring on it (“L8 CMMR”), but it’s hardly “Drunk In Love.” “As Long As I Got You” proclaims her love for husband Sam Cooper and details their pet names over a Zydeco melody, but also finds Allen telling good jokes (“staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose”). Then there’s a cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know,” which sounds only slightly less saccharine than the original. The sparse and twinkly instrumentation of her interpretation would make it perfect for the closing credits of whatever film becomes the next Love, Actually.
If these songs are any indication, Allen is happy. I say this because I think having a portrait of her mood is important to her fans. She’s like Beyoncé or Lady Gaga in that way — people want to, and do, believe that the words she sings represent who she is. But as ever, her public persona requires the sweetness to be matched, even overwhelmed, by the saltiness. Tracks like “Hard Out Here” and “Sheezus” fill that role on this record, but they’ve been rife with misunderstandings and controversy regarding their critical messages.
Whatever you make of the accusations of cultural appropriation in the “Hard Out Here” video, we should be thankful that a pop star discusses the music industry’s glass ceiling in the first single from a major release. Meanwhile, “Insincerely Yours” is a clever chronicle of the music industry’s transactional nature, questioning certain female DJs just for sport — not blood — atop ’90s West Coast hip-hop. On “URL Badman,” she takes aim at music bloggers, hilariously mocking #ViceLife wannabes and white-boy fetishization of critically-acclaimed hip-hop (something Allen herself is perhaps guilty of when she brags about owning every Def Jam vinyl on weak banger “Our Time”). She pulls some Skrillex shit, but the lines are unfuckwithable: “I don’t like you, I think you’re worthless/ I wrote a long piece about it up on my WordPress.”
Most notably, though, this album’s strengths can be found in the middle-ground between salty and sweet, between the poles of her persona — the place, perhaps, where the real Lily Allen abides. Even the title track is nuanced, not bloodsport, on the topic of competition among female pop divas, though the sarcasm of it seems to have gotten lost. Second single “Air Balloon” may toss off a weak joke about Cobain and Elvis and bite off M.I.A.’s style a little, but the song does indeed rise to the top with a chilled-out beat and accompanying ‘haters to the left or whatever, it’s just us now’ message. On “Take My Place,” the emotional core of Sheezus, Allen seems to be detailing the delicate struggle surrounding her two miscarriages. She’s let her guard down, looking for strength, processing anger, allowing herself to mourn.
Lily Allen is among a small group of big pop stars who don’t back away slowly from the word “feminist” in public. The subtlety of “Take My Place” — lyrically and musically, where midtempo piano pop meets a slight guitar twang — resonates just as poignantly on the female experience as the anthems on Sheezus. Humans are complex creatures, not cartoon characters who spew vitriol for the patriarchy 24/7, or reinvent themselves before dinnertime. I’ll take the Lily Allen that’s truly real, not just the one who serves up #realtalk.