First Published May 2014
WHAT A GEM WE HAVE IN SHEEZUS
Some people seem born to a destiny of dividing public opinion. The merest whisper of their name can be akin to a drawing of battle-lines, a pinning of colours to masts, or the firing of a warning shot across the bows of those who may – in their poor and to be pitied uninformed bliss – have taken up positions among the ranks of the ‘other side’!
Not quite sure exactly what I mean? Fair enough. Then think Roy Keane. He’s either a hero with the courage of his convictions who stood firm in his beliefs, or he’s a traitor who turned his back on his country. Or think Barack Obama. To many, President Obama is already one of history’s most defining and charismatic leaders, and one of the greatest orators of our time. But to more, he’s the poorest excuse for a president ever to set foot inside the fabled Oval office. Heck, as far as some are concerned he’s not even a ‘real’ American anyway! How could he be, with a name like ‘that’?! And as hard as that is to fathom, amazingly, there are even the odd few out there who think that, because of the colour of his skin, Barack Obama couldn’t possibly have Irish ancestry! But we’ll leave that to one side for another day!
By now, however, you get my point. Well, London born singer/songwriter Lily Allen most definitely falls into the same category as the iconic ex-Manchester United and Ireland gladiator and the current leader of the free world. Mention her name and some eyes will roll heavenward without need of any further prompting, voices will begin to rise unknowingly but uncontrollably, and fissures with all the potential to run to depths which could well be described as being of a musical civil war kind, will appear in some friendships!
To say most people who know Lily Allen either love her or hate her falls some way short of being an accurate reflection of her place in popular music culture. The truth of it is, that while those who love her do so in a way that accepts and respects her for the artist and person she is and has every right to be, those who hate her seem to see ‘hate’ not as the final exasperated expression of their contempt and disgust for her, but rather as the first! Hate is just a starting point that quickly leads to ‘despise’, ‘loathe’, and ‘detest.’ And yet, far from being a plastic pop star who simply shows up and does what she’s told, Lily Allen is an artist of real substance.
So her recent return from a self-imposed period of retirement was greeted by her fans with all the delight and excitement of being reunited with a friend of old. And as old friends will tend to do, her fans – and yes, I AM ONE! – will defend her to the hilt. So, here goes…
Sheezus, the title of Lily’s first studio album in four years, offers one example of why and how she so easily causes friends and family to split ranks. The title, as she has freely admitted, is a tongue firmly in cheek nod towards American hip-hop artist, ‘Mr. Kim Kardashian’, and Taylor Swift-bashing, God wannabe… Kanye West, whose own last album was called Yeezus.
The major difference between Lily and Kanye is that while irony is skillfully and clearly crafted into Allen’s latest release in a highly witty and entertaining way, Kanye’s production is more of a what you might call a ‘Ronseal’ type affair! That is to say, his album was called Yeezus because he actually does appear to see himself, for all intents and purposes, as a saviour figure. In case any of us failed to pick up on the gift to the world that is his presence among us, his album title was just a subtle reminder. His kind of subtle, mind you.
Lily Allen, however, is just having fun with words. And in seeing and highlighting the extreme egotistical tendencies of Mr. West/Kardashian, she reveals a lack of any real ego in herself. Is she confident in herself? Well that’s a different question entirely, and the answer is that she most surely is! Does she speak her mind freely and perhaps sometimes too openly and willingly for her own good? No doubt about it. But is there a massive ego behind any of that? In my opinion, no. But I can understand how it seems that way to some. The title of Allen’s previous album, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, is another example of how her playful wit could easily be mistaken for arrogance, I suppose. But, if she was a man one doubts the question of wit or arrogance would ever even arise….
Lily Allen doesn’t possess the vocal ability of someone like Adele, let’s say, but there is an almost fragile beauty to her style of singing that sets her apart from many who may be more technically proficient. And while she may not have Adele’s way of synchronising every heartbeat in the room in time with her voice, I doubt if Adele could pull off the rap-like, half-singing/half-spoken approach to expressing herself which Allen has become the leading exponent of on this side of the Atlantic. What Lily and Adele do have in common, though, is their enormous songwriting talent. Adele, quite rightly, has been lauded far and wide for writing the hits which have turned her 19 and 21 albums into such massive global success stories. But Lily receives far less, if indeed, any, credit for her achievements in this regard.
How many of the people who are so quick to dismiss her as ‘all mouth’, for instance, would know that she won an Ivor Novello Award for Songwriter of the Yea’ in 2010, and that her song, The Fear, clinched the prize for Best Song Musically and Lyrically AND for Most Performed Work in the that same year? My guess is not too many. And to put the worth of an Ivor Novello Award into some kind of context for you, previous winners include the likes of Gary Barlow and Elton John. Again, two artists who have come in for more than their fair share of criticism from time to time, but their quality as songsmiths is beyond question.
To further emphasise Lily’s flair and strength as a songwriter, it’s worth pointing out that she also collected a prestigious BMI Songwriting Award for Smile (from her Alright, Still… debut album) in 2008. Mark Ronson, producer of Alright, Still…, also claimed a Grammy Award in the category of Producer of the Year-Non Classical for the single Littlest Things from that same album. A second BMI Award came her way in October 2008 for extensive airplay of The Fear stateside.
September 2009 marked the beginning of a self-imposed retirement of sorts for Allen. Between then and now she married Sam Cooper, a builder and decorator who seems to have acted as a major stabilising factor in her life, simply by accepting and loving her for who she is. Having suffered the trauma of a miscarriage from a previous relationship in 2008, she endured similar heartache with Cooper when a viral infection led to a stillbirth in late 2009. Thankfully, however, the couple have since been blessed with two daughters, with the birth of Marnie Rose in February 2013 bringing a little sister for Ethel Mary, who came into the world in November 2011.
But, back to Sheezus. And what a way to return to the top of the charts. In the time between this album dropping and It’s Not Me, It’s You, we’d only had little teasers of Allen’s unmistakable vocal tones when, under her married name of Lily Rose Cooper, she guested on Pink’s track True Love (from Pink’s 2012 album, The Truth About Love) and, back as Lily Allen again, from her cover of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know, which climbed all the way to number 1 last Christmas. But neither offering had that stamp of Lily’s own unique take on this world.
Sheezus makes up for lost time. Lead-off singles Hard Out Here and Air Balloon are instantly hummable and swirl around your head for hours after hearing either. And on Hard Out Here in particular, she’s back to her most confident and confrontational as the lyric, ‘…if I told you ’bout my sex life you’d call me a slut/ When boys be talkin’ ’bout their bitches no one’s making a fuss/ There’s a glass ceiling to break, uh huh, there’s money to make/ And now it’s time to speed it up ‘cos I can’t move at this pace…’, perfectly demonstrates.
Sheezus – produced by Greg Kurstin who also worked the desk and co-wrote on It’s Not Me, It’s You -has a definite electro-pop feel to it, with little hints of TLC and Warren G moving in and out of the shadows throughout. It’s catchy in a way that is neither in-your-face nor drowns out the consistent class of Allen’s lyrics on every track. Aside from the singles already mentioned, there’s the hilariously wicked URL Badman, in which she perfectly describes and rips apart the kind of numbskulls that infest social media these days, always so quick to throw out their opinions on everyone and everything from behind the safety of a screen, as if that ‘distance’ and ‘shield’ absolves their ‘opinions’ from a need to be based (even loosely!) on fact and reason.
On this track she writes, “I work at home in my parent’s basement/ I don’t troll, I make statements…”, and later, “…I don’t like you, I think you’re worthless/ I wrote a long piece about it up on my WordPress…”, and, “…It’s not for me, it must be wrong/ I could ignore it and move on/ But I’m a broadband champion, a URL badman/ And if you’re trying to call it art/ I’ll have to take it all apart…”
Elsewhere, on Insincerely Yours, she paints a picture of the celebrity social scene that, in seeming somewhat extreme, is probably closer to the truth than many would dare to tell it. She writes, “I don’t want to know about your perfect life, you’re a perfect wife and it makes me sick/ I don’t give a f*&k about your Instagram, about your lovely house or your ugly kids/ I’m not your friend and I can’t pretend…”
Perhaps the two most telling tracks of this whole collection, however, are Take My Place, on which she deals with the subject of her miscarriage, and As Long As I Got You, a touchingly sweet yet not over-sugared tribute to her husband, Sam. Take My Place contains the poignant lines, “…if I could then I would scream/ I’d wipe the tears off of my face/ Wake me up if it’s a dream/ This is more than I can take…”
In As Long As I Got You she declares,”I had that awful feeling, that I needed help/ My life had lost its meaning/ But you saved me from myself…”
Just how much some people are missed – while felt of course, in their absence – is often only truly acknowledged upon their return. Part of the reason for that is because they leave a hole so big that only they themselves can fill that space. So has it been with Lily Allen. During her ‘retirement’ her music was still played and she was still talked about, and in the papers, so she wasn’t really ‘gone’ gone, if you know what I mean. But she wasn’t really ‘here’ here, either.
Sheezus is the perfect comeback. It marks the return of a young woman who will probably always divide opinions. But make no mistake about this, folks: her opinions, be they expressed in her songs or otherwise, are an elixir of truth that a music world so often built solely on and basked in the finest of fakery, needs to have around.
Lily Allen is back, and long may her voice be heard.