“When I was young I was blameless” is an extremely self-aware line from one of pop’s most observant critics, Lily Allen. Without guns or ammunition, Allen took aim at celebrities, society, and even her own family on her first two records, rarely ever directing vitriol at herself. But why would she? During the advent of Myspace, Allen became one of the platform’s most accessible stars, detailing her life and fears for the world to see. Being one of the first to do so put her at an interesting cultural space: a pop star with accessibility, two things that don’t always, at least back in 2006, intersect. As long as she’s been famous, Allen’s been hypervisible, a quality which led to her great success as well as many of her pitfalls.
Lily Allen never pretended to be a great person. After all, she flipped a 50 Cent song into a diss track aimed at her grandmother and her colostomy bag. Furthermore, scrutiny puts people on the defensive, and Allen fought her past battles as viciously as anyone else.
But not so much on No Shame, her first album since 2014’s forgotten Sheezus.
10 years ago, such an album from Allen would be about decimating ex-friends and lovers and a need to get wrecked. Today, it means putting her entire self, flaws and all, through the ringer of her own sharp psyche. It is an album far less fun than her previous ones, but that’s the point: Allen’s a bit tired of fun, and isn’t afraid to admit that “fun” can sometimes be the source of your troubles.
Allen has always garnered attention for a sharp tongue and knack for melodies; even one of her feuding partners, Elton John, whom she once called ‘old’ to his face, praised her “Britain’s best lyricist.” Allen, too, is getting older, reaching new milestones in her life: mother, wife (then not), and to some degree a voice for change (but who isn’t, really, in the age of woke pop). On No Shame, her voice sounds as light as ever, fluttery in a way that shows off her range without quite showing off. As well as she knows how to wordplay, Allen also understands how to tie genres around her delicate soprano, letting it sidle up against dancehall, soul, and even ska elements without appearing out of place.
Just because it lacks snark does not mean No Shame is any less clever; in fact, the composition of the songs more or less gives you a play-by-play of Allen’s past few years. “Come On Then”, a cut which evokes first lady of Mad Decent, Liz, a simultaneously calculated yet frenetic production that heralds her arrival, ready for battle. “Trigger Bang” lays out her life and shortcomings to a hip-pop beat, while “Your Choice”, a fun call-and-response with Burna Boy, rolls along at a pleasant, afrobeat-inspired rhythm. As the album plays on, the tracks spiral deeper under the pressure of conniving labels (“Higher”), infidelity (“Lost My Mind”), and divorce (“Family Man”, “Apples”).
The soulful “Family Man” sends Allen through her divorce, coming out the other side slightly dazed on the minimalist “Apples”. As the “Family Man” rain clouds dissipate, “Apples” lets her examine her parents’ divorces in relation to her own. Its childish curiosity provides a perfect segue for “Three”, where Allen once again wonders about mum and dad but this time from the perspective of her own child. Pairing the two one-after-the-other feels intentional as if to show how uncertainty is something one never really grows out of.
Another emotional low happens on “Everything to Feel Something”, where an icy-voiced Allen languishes over a suspenseful piano line. Just as she looks ready to be swallowed by it all, “Waste” pulls her up by her bootstraps on another dancehall-esque production. From there, the album pretty much levels out, letting her pick apart her fears and insecurities but with less of the masochistic intensity of the prior tracks. “Pushing Up Daisies” perhaps encompasses this best: “If I start to vote for my own interests/If I’m Daily Mail reading know what’s best” she says to a potential partner, asking for a “dressing down” whenever she puts her foot in her mouth.
And Lord knows she deserves a scolding at times; this time she’s just a bit more receptive to it. I don’t believe most fans, or even she herself, ever really expected that, but that’s part of the magic of growing up. B MINUS