[29 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Editor’s note: We originally ran this review on 17 July 2006 following the UK release. We’re re-running the review as the record is finally dropping in the US on 30 January 2007.
Lily Allen’s seemingly improbable sudden rise to pop stardom could only happen in this day and age: an ambitious young singer signs with a major label, refuses the label’s suggestion to go the pre-fab pop route, posts her demos on MySpace, routinely writes personable (and often hilarious) anecdotes on her blog, and quickly wins over thousands of fans on the internet, forcing the music media to follow suit and her record label to scramble to get a product in stores. A mere eight months after she first put her songs on the internet, Lily Allen is the biggest female pop star in the UK right now: she has a number one single under her belt, has appeared on the cover of the NME, and her much-ballyhooed debut album is set to top the UK charts and become one of the biggest records of the summer. Not a bad start for a cheeky 21-year-old with just a handful of live performances behind her and a penchant for slamming everyone from Sven-Goran Erikkson to Carl Barat on her blog.
She might be the daughter of comedian/actor Keith Allen, but Alright, Still is hardly a vanity project aided by Daddy’s cash and connections in the biz. Instead, what we get is an enormously likeable little album that, while far from the most consistent piece of work, exudes the kind of personality and sass we rarely see from mainstream pop singers anymore. With the assistance of such songwriters and producers as Future Cut, Greg Kurstin, Mark Ronson, and Pablo Cook (among others), Allen displays a preoccupation with a wide variety of styles, from ska and rocksteady, to the Madchester stylings of Happy Mondays, to the drollness of Ian Dury, to hip-hop, to rock (good examples of her varied musical interests can be heard on her two mixtapes put out earlier this year), creating an ebullient musical backdrop for her lyrics, which have a tendency to be biting, heartfelt, and hilarious at the same time.
The opening three tracks on the album, all co-produced by Iyiola Babalola and Darren Lewis of Future Cut, set a very high standard for the rest of the album, two of which already ranking among the finest singles of the year so far. “Riding through the city on my bike all day / Cause the filth took away my license,” croons Allen whimsically on “LDN” over a loping bassline and effervescent calypso horn samples, as she goes on to glibly describe seeing pimps, crack whores, and muggers amidst the sunny surroundings. “Sun is in the sky, oh why would I want to be anywhere else?” she muses during the insanely catchy chorus, only to add dryly, “When you look with your eyes, everything seems nice / But when you look twice, you see it’s all lies.”
The bouncing “Smile” is just as good, its loose reggae arrangement augmented by the clever sample of Jackie Mitoo’s piano from the Soul Brothers’ 60s ska tune “Free Soul”, as Allen sings bitterly about her ex, with just a hint of vulnerability at first (“You were fucking that girl next door / What’d you do that for?”), before going to her friends for reassurance (“With a little help from my friends / I found a light in the tunnel at the end”), and confronting the guy during the chorus with a mean-spirited confidence that has us cheering inside (“When I see you cry, yeah it makes me smile”). While the grime-lite “Knock ‘Em Out” is unapologetic in its blatant Streets rip-off, Allen’s lesson on how to deal with smarmy guys is too hilarious to dismiss, the blend of quick-witted rapping and sung choruses undoubtedly owing a lot to Mike Skinner, but it’s her snappy little asides (“I’ve got herpes, no, I’ve got syphilis”) that provide the big laughs.
The rest of Alright, Still struggles to measure up to the first ten minutes, but is never short of memorable moments. The bossa nova tinged “Everything’s Just Wonderful” combines self-deprecating humor (“I wanna be able to eat spaghetti Bolognese / And not feel bad about it for days and days and days”) with a refrain that drips with sardonic sentiment, while “Littlest Things” shifts gears completely, a wistful ballad that hints at R&B as Allen sings of fond memories (“The first time that you introduced me to your friends / And you could tell I was nervous, so you held my hand”).
Allen’s lyrical skill is apparent on several tracks (“Not Big” is one of the most savagely emasculating tunes since Elastica’s “Stutter”), but there are instances where her wry wit gives way to blunt bitchiness, as “Friday Night” is a persnickety account of a nightclub confrontation with another woman, and “Shame For You” and “Friend of Mine” seem to go through the motions when compared to the album’s more successful Angry Woman songs. However, the lyrical mis-steps are often rescued by some excellent arrangements, a perfect example being the contagious “Take What You Take”, its spot-on, effervescent Happy Mondays imitation taking our attention away from the most atrocious lyrics on the entire album.
Allen rebounds in a big way with the concluding song “Alfie”, a half-sweet, half-venomous poke at her younger brother, raking the poor dude over the coals for his slacker lifestyle (“Now how the hell do you ever expect that you’ll get laid / When all you do is stay and play on your computer games?”), and brilliantly delivering the line, “I only say it cos I care,” in the kind of teasing tone that only an older sibling can do. It’s easy to sympathize with her little brother, but full marks to big sis for handing his ass on a platter in such a comical way.
As the Arctic Monkeys found out, becoming such a huge MySpace-related success can lead to hype of gargantuan proportions, and it’s happened to Ms. Allen, as outlandish labels like “the female Mike Skinner” have been surfacing in recent months. We do get sporadic moments of that level of skill, but her songwriting needs to develop more if we want to hear the brilliance of “Smile” and “LDN” over an entire album. For now, instead of making Alright, Still out to be a major piece of work, it’s best to appreciate it for what it really is, a simple, smart pop record by one of the most charismatic young talents to come along in a while.
Lily Allen - Smile