“The game is changing,” Lily Allen muses on Sheezus, the title track to her new album and first release in five years. “Can’t just come back, jump on the mic and do the same thing.”
That she proceeds to namecheck/affectionately backhand pop music royalty in the song’s chorus — “RiRi isn’t scared of Katy Perry’s roaring,” coos Allen — is probably intended as irony (never mind the album’s title, itself a riff on Kanye West’s polarizing Yeezus).
However, it more clearly illustrates how hard it is to not only reinsert one’s self into the pop-cultural conversation, but to find room to grow as an artist.
Allen was last heard from in 2009, when she released her masterful sophomore album, It’s Not Me, It’s You.
After a five-month relationship with Chemical Brother Ed Simons that ended when Allen miscarried (and was subsequently institutionalized for three weeks), she has settled into domestic bliss with husband Sam Cooper, with whom she has two children.
Her first two records, full of spunk and sly humor, marked Allen as not only a rising pop star, but one who unapologetically spoke her mind.
Whether the target was inadequate lovers, her family or herself, Allen spared no one her scalpel-sharp powers of observation.
Time away hasn’t dulled her ability to lacerate with a line — “She’s looking good with her headphones on/With her Beats by Dre/She’s so legit,” goes one withering aside on Insincerely Yours — but what frustrates most about Sheezus is Allen’s reluctance to engage.
An uneven collection, the first five tracks are perfunctory Allen, a mixture of glossy melodies (she reteamed with You producer Greg Kurstin) and smart observations — Insincerely Yours might be the most acidly cynical song about celebrity in ages.
Sheezus gets interesting when the 29-year-old Allen stops baring her claws and instead, lowers her guard.
For much of the back half of the record, save the wonderfully blunt Hard Out Here and the tone-deaf URL Badman, which finds Allen taking swipes at anonymous Internet critics, the London native revels in being a wife and mother, and the solidity of her home life.
“You let me lie in bed when you’re doing breakfast with the kids,” Allen sings on the fizzy, Cajun-inflected As Long As I Got You. “Landing on my feet with you, I’m so happy this is how we live.”
Hearing the ebullience and pride in her voice on the more personal tracks raises the question: Why didn’t Allen forgo jabs at her contemporaries and turn her focus inward?
The answer brings us back to the thorny notion that Allen would somehow fail if she began singing about something less provocative.
And given how Sheezus is laid out, with the headline-grabbing material up front, it’s clear the record label is thinking along those lines. (It’s certainly not coming from the creative end: Allen agreed with a fan on Twitter earlier this year who called the initial Sheezus singles “docile pop rubbish.”)
Five years ago, Allen might have thrown a fit and demanded her label reconsider its campaign. Such a move would’ve proved doubly beneficial — Allen gets to tweak authority, and she stands up for herself as an artist.
That she effectively shrugged and concurred that Sheezus wasn’t being marketed correctly suggests she might not have the appetite for industry machinations anymore.
Hopefully what Allen takes away from all this is a sense of her days of pop provocation winding down, and that the more satisfying path to follow — artistically, as well as likely emotionally — is the one closest to home.
The game is changing, and so has she.