Time bomb in a ballgown
Lily Allen proves her staying power with an album of big, sunny pop songs
It's Not Me, It's You
"What a shit week, eh? As if Mondays arent crap enough as it is, when they're followed by valentines day it makes things so much worse. Obviously the only thing to do in these situations is to go out with the girls, eat steak and get well pissed on pink champagne." So said Lily Allen on 15 February 2006 in her first proper diary entry on MySpace, going on to talk about the lack of curtains in her flat, the weather and her hatred of the Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman. She became the best-known of the blogging pop stars - a new breed that employed online candour and bad grammar to become more best mate than untouchable idol.
Tabloid journalists didn't need to stalk her, as she gave her best quotations freely online. "Fat, ugly and shitter than Winehouse" was one self-loathing entry header. The frankness continued on her debut album, Alright, Still, which sold well over two million copies of its tales of disappointingly endowed boyfriends, female rivalry at nightclubs and her perpetually stoned brother Alfie. She was funny and caustic, a time bomb in a ballgown, dusting the swearing and insults with a reggae-flavoured sugar coating.
In fact, she wasn't quite as spontaneous as she appeared. The privately educated daughter of the actor and gadabout Keith Allen, she in fact already had a major-label deal and had completed her first album by the time her blog appeared. As her fame increased, her antics - topless cavorting on a yacht in Cannes, insulting Elton John onstage at an awards ceremony - threatened to her into the kind of celebrity she once would have vilified.
As Allen returns with her second album at 23, she must be all too aware that pop stars live in dog years. She is at pains to appeal to fans of old by emphasising her continued ordinariness, to an extent that occasionally approaches self-parody. On the chorus of "Chinese" - "You'll make me beans on toast and a nice cup of tea/And we'll get a Chinese and watch TV" - you can almost hear her yawn.
The bad boyfriends are back, too. "Not Fair" is terrifically enjoyable for everyone except its subject, in this twanging country square dance about a chap who can't deliver in the bedroom. "I Could Say" is more sensitive but still kicks another man thoroughly into touch. "Now you've gone it feels as if the whole wide world is my stage," Allen sings over melancholy piano and soft electronic swooshes.
She is also good on family relationships. "He Wasn't There" is a sweet note of admiration to her wayward father comprising slinky jazz piano and dusty vinyl crackle. The standout track, "Back to the Start", is an apology to her older sister, Sarah, for various sibling crimes. This is Allen at her best - supremely hummable pop with dark, lyrical undertones.
She is maturing, but not too much. "Him" sounds like a teenager having a giggly conversation about God: "I don't imagine he's ever been suicidal/ His favourite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival". "Fuck You" is as crude as they come, a filthy nursery rhyme of a tune that is briefly amusing but quickly irritates. And it's already irrelevant, a shoe hurled at George W Bush when he has already left the room.
However, when she tackles some other big topics, she is remarkably subtle. "Everyone's At It", with its staccato piano and electronic squelches, takes on drug culture without condoning or condemning. The inevitable song about celebrity, the recent number-one single "The Fear", teases the fame-hungry but also shows some awareness that many of the lines could be about Allen herself: "Now I'm not a saint but I'm not a sinner/Now everything's cool as long as I'm getting thinner."
Musically, the American Greg Kurstin, who produced three tracks on the first album, is in charge throughout. The reggae-lite has been replaced by sparkly electronic pop: Madness-style piano, jaunty klezmer and, on "Who'd Have Known", an acknowledged lift of the chorus from Take That's "Shine". Most importantly, the tunes are still as big and sunny as the vibrant party dresses that Allen once favoured.
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