Being honest in pop music is a risky business. Lady Gaga knows this--her jams are intentionally impersonal and blandly sexual, whereas any of her “personal” songs (“Again Again,” “Brown Eyes,” “Speechless”) are made to sound
that way so any clubgoer can easily skip over them right to “Poker Face”. Kelly Clarkson certainly knows it; if only she had known it earlier she might have been able to avoid creating the soul-baring bomb known as My December
and simply kept to having five names on each songwriting credit. Once you put what you actually
think out there, instead of boilerplate pop lyrics that can either be construed as “mindless fun” or “biting satire of ‘mindless fun’”, you’re putting yourself out there. And that’s dangerous. Lily Allen takes the challenge, and, as it always is, potential lyrical complaints are all around, especially for nitpickers who don’t like their pop artists outspoken: the materialist satire of “The Fear” is too easy, “Not Fair” is whiny, “Him” is strikingly naive; all flawed in the same way she and everyone else is. And, though these critics may have a point, the fact is that Lily Allen is daringly frank (especially in this day and age), and even if you don’t like the words (which, if you give them more than the skeptical skim, you should), she’s got the tunes to back them up.
Armed with all the money the rogue music pirates who forced her to quote-unquote quit music didn’t manage to steal from her, Allen recruits Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee to dress up her songs in a shiny, immaculate electro-pop sheen that complements her songs perhaps even better than Alright, Still
’s ska-inflected production. Fantastic first single “The Fear” is a perfect example of this new direction--the song’s bubbly synths and retro beats perfectly externalize the sort of materialist fantasy the narrator desires to live in (inspirational opening line: “I want to be rich and I want lots of money.”) The song’s lyrics have Allen, through satire, demonstrating how not to live, but also making this delusional lifestyle a tantalizing thing to experience. Just like all great pop singles, “The Fear” is catchy and likable enough without the lyrics, but has a further layer of intrigue with them.
In that sense, It’s Not Me, It’s You
is essentially “The Fear” times twelve. Musically, these songs are impeccable pop gold--all twelve of them. And underneath their immaculately-crafted melodies and progressions is pure Lily
. Though dressed up in an exquisite get-up, the songs here allow her personality to shine through in full--whether it be the “bitchy” side you probably already knew about (“It’s Not Fair,” “Never Gonna Happen”) or the sensitive side you wished you had heard about earlier (“Who’d Have Known,” “Chinese”). Lily is smart but not too smart to be pinned down as “satirizing” something; scrutinize her and you’ll see she makes slip-ups, but they’re all in good heart. Opener (anti-)drug song “Everyone’s At It” may seem oversimplified, but she’s just trying to protect the kids; “*** You”, to whomever it is
directed (George W. Bush seems like a good guess, though the British National Party is another possibility), is, though vicious, just Lily frankly stating her political mind, but in a way so cleverly universal it could be construed as another Boyfriend Hate song--both of these are examples of what Lily does best: baring her human soul via super-human songcrafting.
By chance, the catchiest of a dozen super-catchy songs is indeed a Boyfriend Hate song: a cleverly seething one called “Never Gonna Happen”. Production-wise, the song is somewhat of an anomaly, a sort of throwback to Alright, Still
that swaggers along not on synths or drumbeats but, of all things, an accordion. Still, instead of feeling out of place, the song gets by on pure charm and humor, as well as seemingly infinite replay value. Another musical anomaly, the country-inflected “Not Fair”, is simply hilarious; a slightly malicious criticism of a boyfriend who just can’t seem to please Lily in bed--even though he’s a nice guy and all.
However, these spiteful diss tracks--as good as they both are--are not the ones that play to her strengths the most. That would be tracks like “Who’d Have Known”--ones that show that, sometimes, she can approach the subjects she knows best (young love, in this case) with just the right amount of brevity and restraint. “Who’d Have Known” carefully tells a story of unsure love, from filling up conversations with talk about the weather, to unexpected kisses, to offhandedly being referred to as “baby”--plus, it has one of those
choruses (legally sampled from Take That or not); the one that instantly gets added into the “classic melody” vault once you hear it. And this brings us back to where we were with “The Fear”. When each song is no-questions-asked catchy, you know you’ve got an honest pop album on your hands. When the one that manages to peek above the rest is not the ones made out of spite or the “satires” but the ones where you secretly hope it turns out to be True Love, you know you’ve got an honest lyrical one. With It’s Not Me, It’s You
, Lily Allen has managed to make both.