Lily’s back, and this time it’s personal. But then, it always has been: few modern pop stars have engaged with the sweet ’n’ sour of today’s celebrity culture quite as eagerly as she has, never knowingly turning the other cheek, or turning down a verbal scrap.
Small wonder, then, that she should open her comeback album with the line “Don’t let my kids watch me when I get in the ring” – parental guidance designed, one suspects, to protect her offspring from seeing how artfully she slices up opponents.
“Sheezus”, the track in question, seems designed to offend as many people as possible in four minutes. Christians will surely demur at the titular notion of a female Jesus, especially when she slips into the sing-song section about “periods, we all get periods”. And bitch-slap sneers at supposed peers like “boring” Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (sardonically dismissed as “dying for her art, so really she’s a martyr”) should annoy several potential fanbases. Not that Lily’s bothered – rubbing in the disdain, the ingenious backing track is built from her programmed ha-ha-has.
It’s a brilliant opener, whose snarky tone is taken up later in “Insincerely Yours”, a damning sideswipe at celebrity culture. Over a slinky shuffle that’s a throwback to classic California G-funk, she speaks for all right-thinking people by admitting: “I don’t give a damn about your Instagram, your lovely house or your ugly kids.” To which, of course, one might well say, “right back at ya, Lily”, when she starts going on about her hubby’s staying-power in “L8 CMMR”, or lapsing into new-mum whingeing in “Life For Me”: “Why does it feel like I’m missing something?” she asks, over one of the album’s loveliest arrangements, featuring springy, twinkling African soukous guitar.
It’s a fine line between one celebrity’s Twitterrhoea and another’s honest confessional, though, and to her credit Lily Allen tries to confront head-on some things that actually matter, rather than just litter the world with more insignificant chaff. The single “Hard Out Here”, for instance, is a feisty feminist anthem, assertive and hard-headed, while “URL Badman” flames trolling bloggers hiding behind their screens, Lily returning the venom they displayed when dumping on her for condemning music piracy, but with rather more wit and style. Clearly, she’s not about to be cowed by cowards.
Musically, Lily and main producer Greg Kurstin have devised a light, fashion-free range of arrangements which carefully avoid the standard electro-disco settings favoured by Katy, Kylie, Gaga and Ri-Ri and emphasising the primacy of her lyrical content, rather than, as in their cases, disguising its thinness.
Only the party anthem “Our Time” buys fully into the disco-pop mode, with “L8 CMMR” using a light, skittish dancehall-pop groove that’s both subtler and sleeker than the usual brutalist beats. But none of her contemporaries could carry off the G-funk and African influences she employs, and certainly not the cajun R&B groove of “As Long As I Got You”, a sort of Bayou Diddley tribute to her hubby, set to accordion and wispy slide guitar.
It’s this diversity that clinches the album’s success, confirming that this is an artist with taste and opinions of her own, not just a schedule and a fanbase to satisfy.