Lily Allen: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”

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You don’t become a bona fide pop star without packing some serious hooks and a striking public persona, two things that Lily Allen has in spades. But though the British sensation packs pop smarts and plucky charisma in equal measure, the two aren’t always given equal attention; though her 2007 debut, Alright, Still, won international critical acclaim partly for its impossibly savvy production and sparkling songcraft, just as crucial to Allen’s success is her tart, snarky personality. She’s a man-eating badass of a pop singer who peppers her songs with cheerful vulgarity, sassy come-ons and pungent put-downs, her ruthless one-liners making her the ideal starlett for the age of Twitter even as her cheeky attitude and vindictive spirit feed into the public perception of the singer as a ferociously sassy party girl– a perception cultivated further by her tabloid-selling carousing and generally sarcastic demeanor.

Of course, another key trait of a pop star is knowing how to keep things fresh and interesting, throwing enough curveballs to outlast novelty without alienating the fans who made you a star to begin with. For Allen’s second album, then, one might have anticipated a slight departure in sound, but that turns out not to be the case; though it is perhaps a bit more streamlined, It’s Not Me, It’s You mines roughly the same fertile ground of sunny, impeccably polished pop, melodic and direct but also rich in sound. Surprisingly enough, the biggest curveball Allen throws is not with her music so much as her persona– which is not at all to say that this is a kinder, gentler Lily, but it is a more introspective one, one who’s tongue drips with just as much venom and whose lyrics are just as loaded with profanity and cheeky humor as before, only this time, rather than unleashing her devastating wit entirely on ex-boyfriends and society in general, she also trains her guns on a new target– herself.

It’s a move that’s not dissimilar to what Elvis Costello did with When I Was Cruel— like Costello, Allen is a notorious trash-talker, and, as he did on that late-career album, she doesn’t abandon her savage wit so much as she ocassionally places herself before the firing squad. But this isn’t an exercise in self-deprecation– if anything, she’s just as cocky and sure of herself as ever, and she’s never been meaner than she is on the succinctly-titled “Fuck You”– so much as actual soul-searching. And in that sense, its closest antecedent might by Kanye West’s divisive 808s and Heartbreak; though Allen mercifully spares us from Auto-tune overdose, she does offer some surprisingly honest reflections on the shallowness and the loneliness of life as a party girl. Nowhere is this clearer than on the first single, “The Fear,” where Allen admits to being numbed and dissatisfied by the pursuit of fame; though she delivers her lyrics with tongue in cheek and drops casual profanity, it’s actually an impressively nuanced song, managing to be an indictment of both society and the singer herself. “22” mines similar thematic ground, mixing social commentary with autobiography.

It adds a dimension of real soul– one might even say depth– to her flashy, pop songcraft, but if she’s grown a tiny bit more subtle as a lyricist, she’s also grown more comfortable with her own flair for theater. Her hooks, sharper than ever, are married to suitably bombastic production, be it in the mock Spaghetti Western set-up of “Not Fair” or the Beatles-cum-Queen pomp of “22.” It’s not a departure from her debut, but a refinement of it, one that broadens her sound without compromising its sunny surfaces or distracting from Allen’s own deadpan persona.

She’s broadened her horizons in other ways, too, namely on “Fuck You”– a giant middle finger to George Bush that finds the singer venturing into political commentary with all the subtlty of a sledgehammer; its straightforward meanness and copious profanity make it hilarious– and “Him” a surprisingly earnest, compassionate song of theological inquiry, in which the singer waxes philosophical about the Divine and wonders at the reason for religious violence. Allen brings her usual sass to both numbers, and though no one will mistake her for a political analyst or a theologian, the two songs showcase a previously unknown side of Allen’s personality, another way in which It’s Not Me proves to be not just an entertaining album, but a downright exciting one, for beneath Allen’s cleverness and pop smarts, she’s revealed a beating heart, a sense of desperation and emptiness that don’t often make their way into pop music. And that sets this album apart– it’s slick enough to appeal to the masses, but personal enough that it could only be  the work of Lily Allen, who, despite all the tabloid caricatures, continues to surprise us.

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