It’s probably fitting that the title of this record is a bit Weird Al Yankovic, because Lily Allen’s own style of topical songwriting has always placed her closer to novelty act than firebrand. There’s just enough evidence that she has a decent ear for a pop tune scattered across Alright, Still and It’s Not Me, It’s You, but the defining characteristic of her output has always been her appetite for acerbic satire.
Unfortunately for Allen on that score, though, her glaring inconsistency leaves her compromised. “Hard Out Here” saw her try her hand at feminist pop, with lyrics that addressed the symptoms but not the problem and a video that, by drawing accusations of racism, rendered any point she might have had null and void. She seems to be barking up a similar tree on the title track, too, which is one of several cuts on the record that sound like M.I.A. if she was suddenly drained of all character.
In Allen’s head, it’s obviously some kind of trailblazing feminist anthem, but several of the contemporaries that she tentatively endorses on the chorus are regular proponents of the kind of behaviour she decried on “Hard Out Here”. It’s certainly not the first time Allen’s been guilty of hypocrisy - the furore over her crusade against file-sharing springs to mind - but it does highlight that, whilst she’s keen to be ‘on-message’, her obvious desire to remain a part of celebrity culture really flies in the face of it.
She complained recently that the public hadn’t heard the best of Sheezus in the run-up to its release, and that she was at the mercy of her label as to the choice of singles. She’s every right to be upset about it, too, because “Air Balloon” is the most shameless of the aforementioned attempts to ape the more commercially-viable side of M.I.A., with lyrics that plumb new depths of banality. “L8 CMMR”, meanwhile, sounds every bit as flat as it did on a recent episode of Girls; it takes the irritating, sing-song spoken word approach that was prevalent on her debut and makes it even more egregious with the addition of some completely arbitrary auto-tune.
Arbitrary’s a word you can apply to much of this record, actually. “As Long As I Got You” enters the same country-tinged territory as “Not Fair”, and is immediately followed by “Close Your Eyes”, an incredibly by-the-numbers, early-noughties R&B effort. There’s glimmers of Allen at her incisive best; “Silver Spoon” is an endearingly tongue-in-cheek attempt to be bullish about her privileged upbringing, and “Insincerely Yours” is a sharp enough pop at the celebrity culture of lucrative public appearances. The problem, though, is that both tracks are musically completely forgettable, and the record’s topped off by the cynical inclusion - in fairness to Allen, surely at the label’s behest - of her cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”, from the John Lewis ad that provided a massive boost to the British sick bag industry. That the original sounds urgent, almost exciting, by way of comparison says it all.
You go back to “Sheezus”, consider that rundown of the competition, and realise how far this record is going to fall short of the standards that Allen’s peers have been setting in her absence. Rihanna has probably averaged a number one once every three months in that time. Beyonce’s last record didn’t quite justify the feverish sycophancy it provoked, but was impressive in its ambition and thematic depth. Lorde is barely out of school and already has an album out that makes this sound prehistoric. Comebacks are often ego trips, but never quite as brazenly as this.