Like Fiona Apple, Sia, and dare I say, Madonna, an album release from English singer/songwriter Lily Allen always resembles more of a substantial world event in pop than a just a simple collection of new material. For some of us fans born between 1990-1996, Lily Allen’s debut practically began with our newfound understanding to actually “enjoy” the music our young minds were not yet developed enough for in the past.
Her breakout singles, “LDN” and “Smile” flooded the American airwaves in 2006/07 after making an impressive dent in the long-lost culture of MySpace and it seemed both Amy Winehouse and Lily herself were at the helm of this strong, female-led charge of specifically UK-bred artists; all who offered a mute semblance of “keeping calm and carrying on” while the world went insane around them.
As I look back on this strangely specific phenomenon of UK female artists blending sunny riffs with lyrics of inner discomfort, I realized the likes of Lily Allen and friends could have only established themselves in this small window of time when the world wide web was just beginning to act as a vehicle for popular music to breakout. Even in the mainstream prime of “Smile” and later 2012’s “The Fear”, her gentle sound and acerbic style made it clear that pop never intended to pave the yellow-brick road for Lily Rose Cooper. And I liked it that way. Lily Allen never tried to be Fiona, Bjork, or even sink to the much-maligned comparisons to indie-pop contemporary, Kate Nash. The structures of her songs never pushed the boundaries of Hammerstein in composition, but her sharp delivery and keen observations about the human condition kept her fans hooked in-between long album hiatuses and false starts.
If Cher and Madonna were mother figures, then Lily Allen compared to more of the street-wise sister I never had. As a young male homosexual who grew up in a small town, I still can’t shake the notion even today that I reek of white picket fences and button-ups. Every time I would try to emulate the unbridled zeal these larger divas had, it always felt like a cheap burlesque imitation by a young white boy who didn’t have the true grit necessary for the performance. Allen was this bizarre combination of what seemed like suburban aesthetic mixed with a celestial exhaustion, always resulting in her wanting more and leading to even more hedonistic behavior. If 2006’s Alright, Still represented my young realization of depression and the loss of childhood wonder, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You helped in the conceptualization of the anorexic firecracker known as teenage Logan. I clung to these lyrics like fly-paper and related to her struggle with doing the right thing for herself but constantly falling to the company and excitement of the other side of the tracks.
It wouldn’t be until a year after my high school graduation and my second semester at Arizona State University when Lily Allen would release her long-awaited 2014 LP, Sheezus. While I still bopped to most of the tracks on the former, five years had effectively passed and the connections I had to her sophomore album were reflections on the two-bit goody-two shoes I began high school as, not the experimental 19-year old who felt the world owed him something. I was elated; I truly didn’t expect any more material out of Allen after she announced she would try her hand at acting, minus a small appearance on P!nk’s “True Love” single. As much as I enjoyed seeing Lily make a brief stint with P!nk, the small verse and harmonies failed to capture the smart snark I experienced in the past.
Sheezus built itself up to be this triumphant silver-tongued harpy of a return who had quite a bit of shit to sling politically, artistically, and emotionally. I will never forget the moment I played her then-recent release and the feeling of unsure disappointment set in: the catchy hooks were there, the sleek production attentive, but Allen seemed plain lethargic. This was not the grown-up Lily Allen giving us the scoop on her years absent, but a collection of expert-level pop tracks intended to capture the feeling of what head-honchos thought she was about, but it didn’t capture the heart.
I remembered exactly where I was when 2018’s No Shame finally released to streaming services and I pressed play on the opening track, “Come On Then” through my Honda factory speakers. It marked about two weeks since the breakup of my year-long relationship with someone I thought would last much longer, and the creeping loneliness felt quite at home with the hazy strings and delayed 808 marking the beat:
I try to keep an open mind,
I feel like I’m under attack all of the time.
My head can’t always hold itself so high,
What if inside I’m dying?
Every night I’m crying,
And even if I died trying,
I bet you’d probably quite like it.
Allen then haunts the pre-chorus multiple times letting everyone know how shitty you all think of her: “I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad wife/ you saw it on the socials, you read it online.” The real hit arrives in the last lines of the same measure, when she drops the bomb, “If you go on record saying that you know me/ Then why am I so lonely?/ ‘Cos nobody fucking phones me.” Between the sunset production and tepid version of her reality she presents, I instantly related to the feeling of constantly being surrounded by bodies, but my phone ultimately silent from no contact. I felt happy I was out of this ill-fitted relationship, but felt kinship to the uncertain vocal tones and blurry disassociation from calm reality.
If “Come On Then” represented the ending of my recent relationship, than her lead single, “Trigger Bang,” serves as the wakeup call I can’t seem to follow through with. Lily Allen sings with a slightly autobiographical edge and details her early life hanging with “rude boys and trainers” and making passive references to the reasons why we utilize substances like cocaine in the first place. While the rap from Giggs captures the young zeal of the early 00s Allen, the track follows the constant theme of leaving the “cool gang” behind in order to dump her addiction to the “whirlwind” and those who squash her ambitions. Even with this constant mantra repeating itself after the insightful verses, the moment of reckoning for both Allen and I when the stark transition from the past segues into the present:
I need to move on and grow some,
Been in the Firehouse for too long.
LDN’s burning, so tan one.
I’m gonna love you and leave some,
I’m gonna go out while I’m still strong, hey.
In the 70s exploitation film, Valley of The Dolls, the cast is constantly haunted by the “dolls,” or the nickname for the substances which limit their ambition and keep them in the same space they started. Lily knows how to exist as a functional addict, but realizes the danger of keeping those influences in her life and destroying everything she worked for.
Lyrics aside, the sound of the album compared to her 2014 misstep seem to have found its footing in multiple genres, achieving the goal she probably set for her past work. “What You Waiting For?” offers a catchy reggae backing with a story of Allen accepting the remorse of her own shortcomings within a relationship and coping with the new-found solitude of her singularity. Mentally battling back-and-forth within and debating whether to reach out, Lily accepts that she turned a “strong man weak” and expresses the regret of how her relationship ended.
If the track order were up to me, I would have placed the equally up-beat-yet-downtrodden single “Lost My Mind” after “What You Waiting For?” as it utilizes certain 2009 Lily Allen trademarks of vague, abstract narrative with what seems to be a flowy marimba riff. Like the last track covered, “Lost My Mind” deals with the isolation a partner can feel post-breakup and sympathizes with those like myself who can’t stop looking at their phone, waiting for that one response.
Jumping back to “Your Choice” featuring Burna Boy, Allen takes a more whimsical Caribbean approach to the last days of a relationship, fighting against her partner’s insecurities while she encourages him to enjoy the scenery a bit more. I will be the first to admit that I am not entirely fond of every rap feature in a Lily Allen track, but Burna Boy contributes some heavy lyrics mimicking more of a duet between him and Lily than Lily and her ex-husband.
“Higher” brings a specificity to the abstract stories Allen has been painting, targeting an individual who she feels has been bringing her to the last rope. Even as she recognizes the signs of this relationship being toxic to her well-being and acknowledges his failures, both he and Lily know the stakes will only be raised higher and higher. As Allen accuses her lover and asks “why did you do it, why would you choose to abuse me,” her continued pleas are only meant by their deaf ears as she begs this person not to roll their eyes again.
I don’t think there has ever been a time when I didn’t cry to a portion of “Family Man.” As the first track Allen wrote for the album, this simple Carpenters-inspired ballad features Allen playing three characters in one song: the chorus sympathizes with the pain her partner went through in her absence, while the verses explain how much she loves him even though some things weren’t meant to be. Although we both know the public result of Lily Allen’s relationship, the hopeful bridge that promises they will persevere is laced with a feeling of futility and multiple entendre: Allen knew they wouldn’t last, but held on to the last thread of making it work with the needed result of her wanting the space she needs to process.
“Family Man” reminds me of my own issue with self-medicating, constantly in a haze and foolishly waiting for someone to save me. At the end of the second verse, Lily laments to her partner that everyday has its challenges, but she never knows what day it is; in the first verse, Lily claims she would give all her days to him if only she had the time of day. Even with knowledge of ending of her relationship, the same lyrics also reassure her partner that they will end up alive and well although the pain in the present feels real. “Family Man” is a lyrically lavish short story of a lover with shortcomings apologizing to her partner, but also reassuring him that this space will only make them stronger on their own. As she begs her partner to not leave her, she still realizes how they arrived at this point and attempts to let her partner know why she’s in pain. How can I possibly save the person I love when I cannot even help myself?
“Apples” reminds any couple of the good ole days, “smoking fat” and utilizing her sweet upper tones to express remorse for breaking his heart and reminiscing of the honeymooner moments. “Three” was an attempt at writing from the perspective of her child as she tours the world and reflects on what her young child could possibly be thinking while she’s away. Like a daughter relaying all the childhood adventures to her absent mother, Lily feels remorse for the “growing-up” moments she didn’t commit to be there for. “I’m only three,” Lily muses through her daughter as she begs her proverbial mother to finally stay and never leave. Allen made a ballsy step in the right direction by writing from the perspective of her young child while sparring the cheesiness; it’s quite rare to find a mother of a three-year-old so ready to admit her career-related absence.
“Everything To Feel Something” is a hark back to the dark places her mind traveled when working through the Sheezus era. Unlike “Family Man,” this track utilizes a more complicated piano riff and heightens the instrumental drama behind the guilt-laden lyrics. I have been told my low self-esteem relates to my poor selection of men, and anyone who suffers the same found themselves in similar scenarios below:
I feel it in my gut,
I’m gonna let you fuck me.
I know I’m being used,
I’m just another thing to do.
I don’t know why I do it to myself;
Giving all my worth to someone else;
I don’t know why I do it to myself,
I’ll do it, yeah, and I’ll do it ’til
I’ve tried everything
The vibe of the album then takes a ten-fold, 180-degree spin as “Waste” featuring Lady Chann brings the “Summerboy” from Lady Gaga to her small yet effective production style. The bright sounds on the 11th track challenge the 2006 Lily Allen for dominance in a much more mature and refined take on what her music used to aurally represent. “My One” is another simple track with a nice 4-on-the-floor clap backing Lily who sings in positive tones about her one and only love. Taking on a more playful turn than the entry-point of the album, “My One” is a stark contrast to the moody ballads and Brit trap-anthems Allen constructed for this album. As much as I want to say it was intended for another project, “My One” acts as the positivity this album needs to fully flesh out the emotional stories and updates we’re receiving on Lily’s well-being. Instead of targeting her love’s shortcomings, she informs him that she could have had every man, but none of them compares to “My One.”
“Pushing Up Daisies” acts as another upbeat entry in the latter part of the album, expressing her hardcore infatuation who she may or may not know that well. Intent on trying not to scare her new target, she can’t help herself but feel embarrassed of all the romantic experiences she wants to have with them, but is thankful they have accepted her love to a certain degree.
No Shame takes its final bow with the R+B ballad-pop hybrid titled “Cake.” I couldn’t help but giggle when Lily claimed she was going to get a piece of that “patriarchy pie.” Have your cake and eat it, Allen says! These last three tracks of the album seem to be a solid nod to the beginnings of her career, and capture the same zeal the younger Allen had, but with a few more tricks and smarts picked up along the way. Although Lily Allen has grown up from the firebrand behind “LDN,” she realized a long time ago life is much more pleasurable when the ire of constantly focusing on the small short-comings overshadow the ever-improving big picture. No Shame is the prodigal return of emotional balladry and honesty within pop, but also a welcome-home party for a friend we haven’t seen do this well for herself in quite a long time.
Cheers, Lily. Your fans haven’t gone anywhere, and you deserve every drip of success you receive from this album. Thank you for helping me rationalize my own emotions through your music.
Lily Allen performs at The Marquee Theatre Wednesday, October 10 at 8:00 PM. The show is General Admission and doors open at 7:00. You can get more info and buy tickets at Luckyman’s website.