Nick Bollinger reviews an unrepentant new album from Lily Allen.
Lily Allen has made a career out of speaking her mind. That has meant songs about everything from bad sex to spaghetti bolognese, all sealed with sassy humour and a strong pop hook.
No Shame is Lily Allen’s fourth album and her first in four years, and from the opening track it’s evident that something has changed. Not only is it notably more downbeat than the bubbly pop and hip-hop of her early hits, there’s a new tone to the voice; an uncharacteristic trace of self-doubt.
In ‘Come On Then’ she is still hanging tough, hitting back at social media suggestions that she has been a bad mother and wife, yet even the bravado of a chorus that goes ‘come on then, since you know so much about me, put your money where your mouth is’ feels like a front. There’s a vulnerability here not found on her other records, and it becomes even more apparent in the songs that follow.
Though Allen’s music is as British as it comes, from the Cockney vernacular rhymes to her taste in dancehall, she is also a child of that most American of genres, hip-hop. As with any rapper, she usually makes herself the centre of the songs, which means that in these ones we find out pretty quickly that there’s been trouble at home.
‘Your Choice’, with its guest vocal from Nigerian rapper Burna Boy, employs a lively dancehall beat but Lily’s vocal is soft, almost fragile, even while she asserts that ‘no man can own me’. The song is a scene from a marriage breakdown; one that just becomes more irreversible as the album unfolds.
In ‘Apples’ she enumerates the stages of her marriage, from courtship to motherhood to ultimately walking away, in the knowledge that she is repeating the pattern set by her own separated parents.
Is it poignant or just mawkish? That depends on your tolerance for real life drama. But perhaps the most exposed nerve in the whole fourteen-song set is the one she hits in ‘Three’: a piano ballad sung from the point of view of her three-year old daughter.
Mawkish or not – and it is right on the borderline - I’ll admit it gets me. And while it fits as part of the breakup story, it could equally stand alone and speak to the dilemma of any working mother. It’s that quality – of the specific having a universal resonance – that makes it more than just another celebrity’s sob-fest.
That goes for other songs here too. Okay, perhaps not every unfaithful lover can claim to have strayed on so many different continents as she does in ‘My One’, still the message is clear: Lily Allen may be sad but she’s not sorry.
And that’s the unique theme of this album, with its pointed title No Shame. Forget about her fame and what you’ll find in these songs is a catalogue of things for which women have traditionally been expected to feel shame, from leaving a marriage to simply working a job. Lily Allen has had her own conflicts and she examines them in these songs. Yet in the end, whatever her flaws or failures, she is determined to feel no shame, and advises other women to do likewise. ‘Get a piece of that patriarchy pie’ she sings in the triumphant closing track of this imperfect yet unrepentant album. ‘Have your cake, and eat it.’