No Shame (Warner)
Can you have your cake and eat it, as Lily Allen discusses in the final song here, a few minutes of not so much self-help as self-sampling called Cake? This album may be proof the answer is no, but not necessarily for the reasons Allen talks about.
“Don't let anyone ever tell you who you are/Or can and can't become,” she sings to young women who may yet “get a piece of that patriarchy pie”, but not without “tears, drawn out fights” along the way.
“If I could go back see myself as a child, I’d say stick to your guns girl/In fact go get that rifle.”
Closing out this relatively track-heavy (14) if not particularly long (51 minutes) fourth album, Cake presents something of a contradiction – or maybe correction – to the catalogue of shitty behaviour visited on her, defiance in the face of worse than shitty behaviour, and scars-crossed-with-wisdom from weathering so many strands of shitty behaviour in the preceding songs.
The list of the boorish and oft-brutal things she’s weathered include pretty much the full checklist for a female public figure, a list begun in the first song, Come On Then: “yeah, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad wife/You saw it on the social, you read it online” and extending from the public to the private and the declaration in Higher that “Sorry, but I know your type/I won’t be undermined”.
Not that No Shame is a polemic about fame and its vicissitudes from the perspective of the public Lily Allen who has no interest in being a compliant media bunny, shamed into Daily Mail-approved behaviour. Much more of it is concerned with the private Allen, albeit with the blunt object of public notoriety banging into the private life easily.
In most of these songs, Allen lays out poor judgements, missed opportunities, dismissive rebuttals, unvarnished hurt, wrong (or just reckless/youthful) behaviour – by her as much as anyone.
While she’ll describes a bit of gaslighting in one relationship (“Stuck in a rut, kicking stones, looking at my phone all night …. And you say it served me right, maybe I’ve lost my mind”), she’s also open about the pangs of guilt for her role in the end of a relationship (“I turned a strong man weak, I threw him down, brought him to his knees/I’m hoping somehow he’ll forgive me, I think to myself”)
Likewise, while able to nail one shitheel to the wall (“I said I’d never let you waste my time/I said you’d never hear me say that twice.”), she’s candid about decisions made to cling to some remnants of emotion (“I feel it in my gut, I’m gonna let you fuck me/I know I’m being used, I’m just another thing to do … I’ve tried everything to feel something, but nothing.”)
And in the middle of it all, the self-lacerating lines in Apples, so open about the ways her marriage collapsed (“I had to do it baby, we were both depressed/Towards the end we were not even having sex/I felt like I was only good for writing the cheques/I like a drink but that does not make me a wreck”) have a serious sting in the tail from the child of a foundered relationship herself.
“Now I’m exactly where I didn’t want to be/I’m just like my mummy and my daddy … I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
The frankness of her assessments makes for racing and enjoyable lyrics, which have always been her great strength – and explain why her third album, the “comeback” Sheezus, ultimately was disappointing: because her heart wasn’t in the words, let alone the stories.
Here they go a long way to justifying the critical reactions to No Shame, some of which are calling it masterpiece. But this is where the cake having/eating dilemma comes up.
Too few of these songs, stack up musically next to the lyrics. Too many of them hit the familiar notes of her career – lilting pop, touches of reggae and dancehall airy melodies, lightweight modern R&B – without having the stickability of her first two albums.
They bounce, they smile jauntily, they pull along with an island lope: they sound exactly like a Lily Allen album is supposed to sound like, and that contrivance is no substitute for quality. There’s no reason why you can’t have good tunes and good lyrics; there’s no reason why you can’t have more.
Apart from Cake, with delicate strength in its sunny disposition, the standouts are the central ballads, Family Man (built like a classic soul song with its easily worn emotion as direct as the lyrics) and Everything To Feel Something (this time a more contemporary drifting electronic sound). These, probably not coincidentally, are also the songs which suit Allen’s limited range and flexibility, or at least are where the most consideration has been given to making the songs work for her rather than make her work to define them.
No Shame hits so many targets lyrically it is tempting to let the musical weaknesses slide by – after all there’s so much to get your teeth into. But without the songs to back her up, Allen can’t really make the most of that cake.