Not so long ago, Lily Allen could have donned her chavvy best and outplayed Beyoncé’s female version of a hustler. Back around the time her debut album, 2006’s Alright, Still was released, Allen was a precocious diva; an unapologetic barely legal teen who trafficked in clever heartbreak, used the word “twat” like some sort of messy conjunction, and got into barside tangles when appropriate. Artistically and otherwise, she got away with all of it.
Blessed with an uncompromising commitment to her tough-girl ideal—and freed from any relative wholesomeness—Allen was able to be pure unadulterated badness, posessing the goods to back up lines like “don’t try and test me ’cos you’ll get a reaction” (from Alright, Still’s “Friday Nights”). With smart, wonderfully biting lyrical content that far outshined the work of her merely adequate production team, Allen was well on her way toward some kind of attitudinal immortality.
But then came the canceled shows, some rather public advice from a few “friends” who wished she’d go to rehab, the baby, and, finally—perhaps more important—not the baby. Now, only two years removed from the height of her unabashed badassery, Allen is doing her level best to refine, and redefine, herself—and, of course, that transformation coincides with the release of a new album.
While such an attempt to clean up might be the right personal move for Allen, if her latest disc is any sort of indication, it’s not so great for her career. In what reads like a preemptive strike, Allen has titled her sophomore take It’s Not Me, It’s You. The project manages to be both a half-cocked attempt at reform and a halfhearted reminder of Allen’s former self—in either case, the resulting mess is entirely her fault.
Allen’s once effortless, witty, stinging guile has now turned into labored caricature. “Never Gonna Happen,” for example, is a rehashing of Alright, Still’s genius end-of-relationship fuck-you, “Not Big,” but with less snarl. Instead of lobbing a threat of “working [her] way through [his] mates” and a not-so-subtle reminder of her former lover’s bedtime inadequacies, Allen turns nearly apologetic. She tells the future Mr. Dumped that “it makes [her] really sad to hear [him] sound so desperate.” Really sad? Next to such barbs as “Yeah, let’s rewind, let’s turn back time to when you couldn’t get it up” and “If that weren’t enough to deal with/You became premature,” “Never Gonna Happen” is more makeup song than breakup song.
Even worse, about halfway through It’s Not Me, It’s You, Allen starts firing off empty, pejorative F-bombs in a misguided attempt at offsetting her new image. Where before her “fucks” were usually just adjectives sprinkled among more witty content, on “Fuck You,” her use of the word comes off as a desperate-sounding attempt to remind us of what she once was. She uses the expletive—now reduced to mere childish name-calling—to disparage “a racist who can’t tie [her] laces.” As anyone who’s paid any sort of attention to the work of a put-down artist can tell you, “fuck you” is the last resort of an aggressor who’s run out of clever barbs—and it seems that Allen certainly has.
Labored stabs at roughness are nothing compared to Allen’s ill-fitting attempts at being good. As she sets the tone for It’s Not Me with “Everyone’s At It,” an album-opening call for sobriety that rings with the sort of hollowness that only a recent regretful binger can offer, Allen seems to want her audience to share in some measure of her embarrassment. Though she may indeed be tired of “Staying up past the sunlight” and we might even believe that she’d like to “tackle the problem,” Allen’s appeal for us all to admit that “everyone’s” engaged in some sort of drug abuse is, given the context, nothing more than a misfired attempt to make us all party to her indiscretions. It’s an accusation that would be more effective if she wasn’t so busy trying to make us believe that she’s changed her ways.
When she’s not trying to convince everyone of her sobriety or punch-pulling with regard to her trademark insults, Allen is further suppressing her inner diva by heading for the time-honored good-girl waters of pining for love. She craves affection of both the sisterly variety (“Back to the Start”) and the romantic sort (“Chinese”). And, just for good measure, she throws in a declaration that she’s just fine, thanks, without a former conquest (“I Could Say”). Just in case that’s not enough to make you think that Allen’s done some kind of behavioral 360, she tacks on a song about God. “Him” comes complete with such abysmal ponderings as “come election time I wonder who he’d vote for” and “Now is he interesting or do you think he’d bore us?”
It all bounces along at typically bland pace: Unlike greater divas, Allen’s never been the recipient of production that might overshadow her lyrical talents. For It’s Not Me, the man behind the knobs is the Bird and the Bee’s Greg Kurstin, who also twiddled for some of the finer moments of Alright, Still. It seems he knows his job is to mix up an innocuous blend of pop-club stuff that never feels out of place, and he performs his job well—unlike the fading star he works for.
No doubt burdened by recent events, Allen, British tabloids be damned, decided to seek public forgiveness. And that’s fine. But in so doing, she’s taken the thing that defined her earlier success—that unrepentant bite that made her so much more interesting than your average pop songstress—and turned it in for the sort of droll crap that makes its way onto so many other recordings. As good as she was at being a bad girl—better, it could be argued, than just about anyone—it turns out that she’s just as bad at being a good one.