For no greater reason than timing, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse may forever be linked. Two raven-haired, tart-tongued, substance-loving ladies who became media darlings/targets in the UK (and subsequently the US) within a few months of each other, their actual backgrounds and aesthetic styles are sharply different, despite occasionally sharing a producer (Mark Ronson). Nevertheless, both became headline-snagging tabloid fixtures, known more (at least in the US) for their antics than their music. Both have even spawned some blatant imitators, Duffy and Adele aping Winehouse, Kate Nash cribbing Allen.
By staying together enough to write and record a new album, despite a miscarriage and a breakup, Allen one-ups her forever beleaguered contemporary. It’s Not You, It’s Me follows 2006’s Alright, Still, a thrilling burst of stylistically schizophrenic, youthfully nonchalant, defiantly hooky pop. For Not You, she ditches Alright’s numerous producers (including Ronson) to work exclusively with Greg Kurstin, of the Bird and the Bee fame and Geggy Tah shame. From the opening track “Everyone’s at It”, with its thick, imposing buzzsaw synths playing like the soundtrack to some dystopian, zombie-slaying arcade game, the difference is automatically noticeable. Kurstin is more about bottom-heavy grooves than loose-limbed beats, and thus the music here is often more informed by disco and house than ska and old-school R&B.
For her part, Allen delivers contagious melodies in her trademark Mockney purr, often multi-tracking her voice into a miniature chorus. While she can pen insanely potent tunes, Allen is no great lyricist. There’s fewer laugh-out-loud quips and more clumsy phrases here than on Alright, Still, in part because the songs struggle to be deeper. Yet she is more comedienne than philosopher, better at taking the piss than making a point. Hence why two poorly written songs almost mar an otherwise strong disc. “Fuck You” is an infantile (check the “fuck you very, very much” refrain) potshot at narrow-minded conservatives (specifically George W. Bush), pledging the very kind of hatred it seeks to indict. Like her nemesis, she is content simply to lob bombs (hers are verbal, thankfully, and often ineffective) rather than work towards compromise and common ground. “Him” is even worse, as Lily Allen contemplates God, in what plays like a 12-year-old’s trite admission of spiritual uncertainty, complete with insignificant invocations of 9/11. She’s not Andy Partridge; she’s not even Joan Osborne. The lofty target is clearly out of her reach, a subject beyond her comprehension. She ought to stick to shitty boyfriends and Cheryl Tweedy.
Or womanhood. Allen is more comfortable and successful tackling the predicaments of the post-Carrie Bradshaw woman in a world of post-Woody Allen men: falsely empowered femininity trumping stilted masculinity. “Not Fair” rides a variation on the Rawhide theme into the sunset, and that Rawhide simulacrum is apparently a more satisfying muse than a sweet, chivalrous guy who is hopelessly, selfishly inept in the sack. At least on “Not Big”, the you-have-a-small-cock tirade was a form of post-breakup vengeance. Here, it seems unnecessarily nasty. Ditto the two-stepping accordion-and-handclaps stomper “Never Gonna Happen”, which dances around a smitten fuck buddy’s shattered heart with gleeful, ridiculing dominance.
First single “The Fear” is catchy enough, but it partakes in the kind of finger-wagging critique of conspicuous consumption that can only come from a privileged twentysomething, one who takes the pleasures of consumption for granted. She attacks fame-chasing exhibitionists with a Diablo Cody-level of cluelessness to the conditions that breed fame-chasing exhibitionism. Her frustration with the hollowness of the celebrity dream is palpable, especially when she affirms that “everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner”. But she casts blame not just with her “programmers” and handlers, but the fans who read about her life (often on Allen’s own intimately detailed blog) in the hope of escaping their own.
But of course, for all her attacks on patriarchy and the women who fall victim to it (such as “22”), the obligatory love songs on the disc’s second half reveal it’s all a front. “Who’d Have Known” and “Chinese” thaw the frigid exterior, and expose it as merely the armor of a confused, neurotic princess, her contempt for needing a man immediately evaporating when she actually has one. A deceptively old-fashioned mélange, with drums out of “Be My Baby” and tremolo guitar plucked from “Popsicles and Icicles”, “Chinese” is easy-listening surf-pop that yearns to watch TV and gobble lo mein with some distant lover. And “He Wasn’t There” forgives the seemingly unforgivable offenses of the first man in her life: her father. The final four songs find romance, ponder God, and absolve daddy, concluding with the statement: “Now, everything’s fine”. Her disaffected sneer now a beguiling smile, she ends the album satisfied rather than snippy, as though fulfilled by what she once callously assumed unfulfilling.
Ultimately, Allen is a pop-music mean girl; like Regina George or Hilary Faye, she is a complex, study in 21st century womanhood. She reflects a culture where spoiled, overindulged young women feel not just entitled, but obligated, to become bitchy supervillains, because it sure as hell beats being a powerless victim like the confined, repressed sad sacks surrounding them. If not for this central conflict, Allen would be an insufferable git. But even when she’s infuriating, especially when she’s infuriating, she’s an enthralling performer, her personality taking her where her limited vocals cannot. Yet there is no sense that on this sophomore album, Allen has evolved as an artist. Too often, she’s treading water on songs that play like Alright outtakes, and when she tries to expand, she stumbles. Like the robust, cumbersome synths that dominate the album, Allen seems stuck in her own world, a once compassionate individual losing touch with reality. Her once bubbly pop is now a bubble of isolation: still catchy, still funny, still danceable, but uncomfortably solipsistic, casting an unsparing mirror on a culture that has equated selfishness with power.