Review Summary: More Kim than Kanye.
In a vacuum, Lily Allen taking up the position of matriarchal wiseass in pop music isn’t such a farfetched idea. Blessed with an acerbic wit equally disposed to flaying her own skin as well as all that of all the personalities who frequent the airwaves alongside her, Allen, on a short and sweet run in the ‘00s, turned relative weaknesses (her vocals, that middle finger of a public image) into singular strengths (lyrics skewering pop culture when Lorde was still in primary school, that middle finger of a public image). Allen’s was a persona that was able to live in the same pop stratosphere as Britney and Gaga while cheerfully poking holes in all their fabrications. It was fun, sure, and playful – Allen always made you feel like she was playing a game, eyebrows raised incredulously, and not the other way around – yet the strength of her songwriting assured you that she wasn’t just some subversive outsider gaming the system. After all, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You
, which found that sweet spot between typical Lily Allen-isms like “Not Fair” and a pure craftsmanship that felt right at home on the charts, had just as good a claim as its contemporaries for being a modern pop classic.
When Allen took an extended sabbatical from the limelight in order to focus on her family, it left an outspoken hole that Sheezus
attempts, from its first few verses, to noisily fill. Calling out everyone from Rihanna to Katy Perry on the title track, Allen announces her intentions with all the subtlety her fans have come to expect from her. Yet the feel of everything rings hollow, Allen’s lyrics a meaningless rant, the song itself less a whip-smart incision into modern radio than an obnoxious call for attention. It’s hard to take “Sheezus” and Sheezus
seriously when Allen herself seems so blasé about the whole affair. Her comment that the singles from the record are “docile pop rubbish” doesn’t exactly draw in listeners, never mind that “Hard Out Here” is lyrical marksmanship lacking any particular target and “Air Balloon” is a trite M.I.A. impression. Allen’s (or, more likely, her producers) decision to close out the record with her syrupy cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only I Know,” a tacked-on holdover from a 2013 Christmas special, is so out of place, not only in the context of Sheezus
but also in Allen’s career and personality as a whole, that its placement reeks of laziness. It’s a commercial grab, an easy sticker to attract out-of-the-loop fans that Allen, in a different time and place, would have scoffed at.
The rest of the record isn’t the tragedy haters would like it to be, but Allen’s seeming desire to release an album just for the sake of releasing an album infects what is otherwise a workmanlike, appropriately produced (largely by the increasingly ubiquitous Greg Kurstin) pop record. Aside from the obvious missteps – the dated dubstep rhythm makes Allen’s evisceration of internet trolls on “URL Badman” seem like a meta-troll job on herself – Sheezus
unloads its fair share of hooks, and, when Allen is invested, glimpses of a personality not merely going through the motions. “Silver Spoon” is an effectively biting reversal of her childhood privilege, while “L8 CMMR” and “Life For Me” meld easy influences (a touch of Justice and Vampire Weekend, respectively) with the kinds of twists and turns that have made her lyrics and unvarnished personality a trademark. The fact that many of the best songs here – “L8 CMMR,” the self-deprecating realism of “Close Your Eyes” that fits so hilariously with the song’s ‘90s slow jam aesthetic – focus on her now well-settled domestic life is a testament to how Allen can grow as an artist and still retain that vital edge.
Motherhood and a steady relationship fit Allen well, and when she can turn those hyper-specific observations on something she knows well – herself, her family, pop culture – she remains one of the more exciting artists in the pop spectrum. The problem with Sheezus
, however, is Allen no longer seems as tuned into pop culture as she once was; or, if she is, she just can’t find it in her to care so much anymore. Too often Allen sings like she’s on the defensive, like she needs to justify her place in the pop realm instead of going on the attack like she used to do so recklessly in the past. The swagger seems forced, and the melodies full of hooks that never really attach themselves to their singer. Sheezus
is a thinly constructed veneer, a pastiche of past Allen successes that says a lot but never really moves forward. As a record to remind everyone who she is – Allen has stated that the end goal of Sheezus
is to sell “enough [records] so that they’ll pay me to do it again” – it’s a rousing success. As a Lily Allen record, it’s a sneering, vapid imitation: a Lily Allen stereotype. It’s unfortunately just the kind of through-the-motions effort that Allen herself no doubt would have savaged years ago.