To hear her talk about it to the press, the spunky British singer Lily Allen is thrilled to be releasing a new album after taking a five-year career hiatus in which she gave birth to two daughters.
“I wasn’t good at staying home all day, it didn’t suit me,” she told the UK edition of Glamour. “I missed the positive feedback about my music from my fans. I missed the rush of performing. I missed the free clothes and handbags and the good tables in posh restaurants. I did!”
But the material on Allen’s comeback record, Sheezus, sends a different message. She sounds grumpier than ever about making music—which raises the question, why’s she bothering to make it?
Her third full-length certainly offers more of the unusual recipe that first made Allen stand out back in the mid-2000s: sharp, tangy, BS-free lyrics coated in deceptively sweet soprano. “I went to prep school, why would I deny it? / Silver spoon at the ready, so don’t even try it,” she coos in “Silver Spoon,” a wry message to detractors read too much into her privileged west London upbringing. On “URL Badman,” Allen acerbically imagines the fantasies of a basement-dwelling, misogynistic male music journalist: “A$AP, Kanye, xx remix / Mike Jones, Paul Wall—I need a Kleenex.”
But if Allen’s trademark bluntness here is delightfully sassy at best, at worst it comes off as unnecessarily disdainful—even cantankerous—toward fame, other musicians, and even pop music fans.
Yes, oppressive industry standards and music journalists do deserve the shellacking Allen gives them on numbers like “Hard Out Here” and “URL Badman” (which, full disclosure, a group of critics that included Nolan Feeney and I may or may not have helped inspire last year). But on the title track, Allen picks on the female musicians she ostensibly set out to defend in the two tracks I just mentioned: She sneers at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry while telling Beyoncé to, essentially, bow down. Jabs like these aren’t ultimately so different, in substance, from the kind of arbitrary competition-dissing found in many rap lyrics. But because most of the artists Allen mentions strain to send positive messages of self- and female empowerment rather than start intra-music beefs, these swipes—tongue-in-cheek as they may be—feel startlingly unprovoked.
“Insincerely Yours,” meanwhile, introduces a note of real antipathy toward fame and celebrity, declaring that she “doesn’t give a fuck” about celebrities like Cara Delevingne or Jourdan Dunn or the perfect lives or “ugly kids” they broadcast on Instagram. “I’m not your friend and I can’t pretend … Let’s be clear / I’m here to make money, money, money,” she sings. “We’re all here ’cause the price is right.” The wistful chorus of “Air Balloon” features Allen fantasizing about what could be interpreted as a place to hide away from fame: a hot-air balloon perch high up in the sky, where “we can’t hear what they say.” (The “let’s just escape all this and get some privacy” vibe returns at the end of the album, too, with a pretty cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know.”)
The title of Sheezus, of course, is a smirking play on Kanye West’s hard-hitting 2013 statement album Yeezus. But if Sheezus has any statement of its own to make, it’s that Lily Allen doesn’t like anybody much these days except her husband and kids. The least cynical sentiments on Sheezus, like the ones in the playful, tender “As Long as I Got You” and the don’t-touch-my-man anthem “L8 CMMR,” find Allen singing her the praises of her husband and their life together at home. “Life for Me” follows Allen as she agonizes over the monotony and messiness of motherhood (“I’m head to toe in baby food,” she laments) and momentarily envies the glamorous lives of her friends without kids, but ultimately realizes, “I’m as content as can be / This is the life for me.” And as Greg Kot rightly notes at the Chicago Tribune, the album’s one ode to good times and living it up—the laid-back “Our Time”—feels something like a “farewell to a bygone ritual.”
It’s hard to shake the impression, then, that Sheezus is a comeback album by someone who’s not all that excited about being back—and the fact that Allen herself recently agreed with a fan that some of its music was “docile pop rubbish” doesn’t help.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Allen’s music has been less than enthusiastically friendly. Much of 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, for example, reflected the title’s distinct disregard for politeness or charity, and in 2006, a few reviews of Allen’s debut album called Allen out for being “sickeningly contemptuous of everyone but herself.”
But in the past, much of Allen’s cutesy vitriol was usually directed at easily hateable targets: bad boyfriends (“Smile,” “Not Fair,” “Not Big,” “I Could Say”); fickle girlfriends (“Friend of Mine”); unwelcome, over-aggressive suitors (“Knock ‘Em Out,” “Shame For You,” “Never Gonna Happen”); and specific oppressive social norms (homophobia in “Fuck You,” youth obsession in “22”). Sheezus carries on Allen’s penchant for sticking it to bad guys, but this time around, her grumpiness also falls on people who deserve it less—like other pop singers, and, more importantly, the fans who perpetuate the stardom she seems to find so bothersome. It’s not wrong to critique the global pop-music industrial complex or its tendency to pump out catchy, thinly veiled cash grabs and call them art—but there’s a strong whiff of hypocrisy in Allen’s doing so on a pop album she herself doesn’t seem all that artistically invested in. She’s just “here to make money, money, money,” after all.
Maybe Sheezus should get credit for its honesty. Allen's deep sadness is palpable as she mourns a miscarriage in "Take My Place," and throughout the album, she delivers her sharpest barbs juxtaposed with the all-too-human insecurities and anxieties of an out-of-practice pop singer coming back to music after a five-year absence. But Sheezus is the rare example of raw musical candor that might not draw its listeners in closer—rather, it runs the risk of alienating them.