When Lily Allen burst onto the scene in 2006 with her iconic, ska-fueled hit, “Smile,” she became the first person to transcend Internet stardom and become an honest-to-god pop idol. Her debut record, Alright, Still, went on to sell over two-and-a-half million copies worldwide and set a new status quo for female pop stars. In the wake of this success she found herself in a tabloid feeding frenzy. But, unlike many of her peers, her actual talent always seemed to remain front and center.
Allen’s first record existed in the space between the confessional and the catcall. Her witty, jaundice-eyed criticisms of youth culture felt like a breath of fresh air in a world full of canned vocals and second-rate Avril Lavigne hackery. And the beats were badass too. Now, with her second record, It’s Not Me, It’s You, Allen has shed the quirky dub-influenced samples and moved toward a more dancehall-friendly techno sound, with mixed results.
Somewhere along the line, Allen apparently decided that she could be the next Bob Dylan. Unfortunately for her, the excretory Bush-bashing ballad, “Fuck You,” is no “Masters of War.” Similarly, “Everyone’s At It,” “The Fear” and “22” add absolutely nothing to the cocaine discussion that wasn’t already said better in Run-DMC’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It).” Worst of all is the religious bigotry trope, “Him,” which asks of God, “Do you think he’d drive / in his car without insurance?”
Every time Allen reaches to make a statement song, she falls flat on her face, seemingly forgetting the concept of subtext, a tool she previously used with great effect on hits like “Smile,” “LDN” and “Alfie.”
The album fares much better when Allen keeps the politics interpersonal instead of international. Several of the songs have infectious hooks and wonderful, sugary choruses that are the stuff of intoxicating infatuation and summer romance.
“Who’d Have Known” explodes with electric joy, detailing a flirting crush. Couplets like, “You said tomorrow would be fun / And we could watch ‘A Place in the Sun'” transcend banality to become magical. Immediately following this is “Chinese,” an effervescent recollection of a promising romance that pops in ways it really has no right to.
On the other side of the coin are a few songs about falling out of love. On “Not Fair,” Allen toys with a thumping western beat as she humorously laments meeting the perfect man, only to discover that he is a total dud in bed. Meanwhile, “Never Gonna Happen” alternates between a coy accordion and a full-blown street orchestra as Allen tries desperately to brush off a would-be beau even as she continues to call him up for advice, companionship and sex.
Another winner is “I Could Say,” a song that shimmers with futuristic production and strong lyrics about feeling free at the end of a relationship. Finally, on the album closer, “He Wasn’t There,” Allen cuts loose and plays home wrecker over an anachronistic vinyl-record buzz.
Ultimately, the album is almost at war with itself. Pompous political work weighs down insightful personal moments. Revelatory tracks like “Never Gonna Happen,” “Who’d of Known,” “Chinese” and “I Could Say” touch on brilliance, while the other eight tracks range from mediocre to wretched.
For many artists, an album with four scorching tracks might be prefaced with the title “Greatest Hits,” but for a woman of Allen’s talent, it feels like a letdown. Allen has it in her to write generation-defining work. But she’s not quite there yet.