From the moment she ripped apart a good boyfriend’s skills as a lover on “Not Fair”, it was obvious that Lily Allen prized honesty, even if that honesty was brutal, judgmental, or uncomfortable. She made a name for herself by crafting liveable, memorable pop songs that didn’t care if they weren’t polite. The flip side of pop-punk, Allen was punk-pop, in attitude if not in music. She has always felt sharpest at her most uncompromising, and that fact is thrown into stark contrast on Allen’s latest, Kanye West-referencing record, Sheezus, which is at its strongest when it cops to more details and weakens considerably when the London-born singer-songwriter falls back on generalities.
Allen’s third record is her first since marrying and having her two daughters, and her husband, Sam Cooper, and her children both play central roles on Sheezus. Cooper gets three songs presumably dedicated to him: the cotton candy fluff of “L8 CMMR”, the carnival western house of mirrors that is “As Long As I Got You”, and the classic ’90s R&B of sex jam “Close Your Eyes”. Meanwhile, Allen’s daughters get referenced on the album’s opening title track and are the implicit driving force behind the quarter-life crisis of “Life for Me”. The domesticity fits Allen well, as she seems largely pleased to be in her own skin across Sheezus and bereft of the anxieties of her earlier albums. And it’s actually a bit charming to see a pop star expounding the virtues of a life of monogamy and marriage and children.
But that charm only comes across when Allen is willing to dive into the minutiae of her life. Despite the cheesy, undeniably silly hoedown harmonica synths that make it hard to take “As Long As I Got You” seriously, it’s easy to relate to Allen’s warm satisfaction in details like “You let me lie in bed when you’re doing breakfast with the kids” and “You sleep with your mouth wide open” and “You only cook from frozen.” But similar sentiments fall flat on earlier love track “L8 CMMR” because it’s about as lyrically trite as a love song about your lover’s bedroom prowess can get: “When I see his face/ I feel like I could win the race”; “My lover shoots and scores like he’s Maradona”; and “You can’t have him no way, he’s taken, ladies.” At one point, Allen sings, “Can’t put this thing into words,” and it’s hard not to wonder why she tried.
The other tracks dealing with Allen’s home life — “Close Your Eyes” and “Life for Me” — fall along similar lines. The latter is a tropicalia-twinged charmer that is relatable even for the single and unattached by nailing the odd balance of feelings that comes with existing in a separate world from your presumed peer circle, but still being aware of that circle’s actions. Throughout the jangly pop tune, Allen successfully straddles the line between feelings of contentment in being a monogamous mother of two who thinks she’s too tired or old to be going out and of envy toward friends who are obviously enjoying their freedoms.
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But “Close Your Eyes” falls flat, despite the victory in the anti-pop hero sentiment of a line like “I know I’ve let myself go/ But I still feel sexy/ When you undress me,” because the rest of its lyrics are just generic bedroom talk. Plus, it’s so Beyoncé-lite that Allen can’t avoid name-dropping Queen Bey in the first verse. But what made “Close Your Eyes”‘ most analogous Beyoncé track (“Rocket”) successful was Bey’s fearless audacity. Despite assertions of the opposite on “Close Your Eyes”, it still feels as if Allen is uncomfortable pushing boundaries here, and that dims the song’s possible wattage.
Outside of her personal life, much of the rest of Sheezus features Allen in full judgement mode. It’s on such tracks that Allen has traditionally best been able to showcase her cutting and clever sense of humor, but just like her more homespun topics, it’s about a 50/50 split of success and failure on this aspect of Sheezus. The more successful tracks here are “Sheezus” and “URL Badman”. The former opines the false competition of the music industry by buying into it, tongue firmly in cheek. It’s complicated and nuanced, and as the opening track it really sets a bar for the album that the rest of Sheezus, which is often too on-the-nose, can’t reach. “URL Badman” is ridiculously on-the-nose itself, what with its straw men intro and the cringing line “I don’t like girls much/ They kinda silly/ Unless of course they wanna play with my willy.” But as it alternates between an airy four-beat stomp and swirling dubstep, Allen finds her mark with an abundance of accuracy: “I don’t like you/ I think you’re worthless/ I wrote a long piece about it up on my WordPress.”
But the rest of the targets in Allen’s sights are handled poorly. “Insincerely Yours” attempts to skewer the falsity of celebrity life, but the constant assertion that the only reason the song’s central character is around is to make money doesn’t sound very biting when Allen’s disaffected delivery and the track’s subbasement-level disco funk make the track sound exactly like a cash grab. “Silver Spoon” is similarly lackluster as it attempts to detail the eye-rolling perspective of some Tal Fortgang type, but it’s so poorly rendered it’s hard to feel anything about the character at all. And the record finishes with “Hard Out Here”, whose controversial video found Allen having to respond to accusations of privileged racism and even low-key slut shaming. It’s hard to nail the nuance of sarcasm in text, but it might be even more difficult to render it on a bland Diet Gaga pop dud.
The musical arrangements and production across all of Sheezus share, with the exclusion of maybe “As Long As I Got You”, a weird sense of distance. Everything feels light and vaporous, and it imbues the whole record with a sense of sentiment or melancholy or nostalgia. It’s as if the music is attempting to convey a sense of these stories having already been told, and now they’re being lived third-person, or maybe as if they’re floating, timelessly. That feeling allows all of these tracks the possibility to be very powerful, but Allen seems at a loss with how to engage her backdrops, with hooks that try too hard (“Air Balloon”), balladry that subsists on platitudes instead of specifics (“Take My Place”), or attempts at fist-pumping sing-alongs that fall limp (“Our Time”). Allen’s at her best when she’s casting a keen and honest eye on her subject, but too often on Sheezus, she sounds absent.
Essential Tracks: “Sheezus”