As the first of the bad girls through the door, it’s hard to know what Lily Allen’s done more for, feminism or pop music. A quick Top 40 history lesson to demonstrate. Pre-Allen: Joss Stone, Katie Melua, KT Tunstall, Amy ‘Frank’ Winehouse; safe, insipid, grown-up and gash.
Après Allen: Beth Ditto, Florence And The Machine, Ladyhawke, Amy ‘Rehab’ Winehouse; intelligent, dangerous, opinionated and human. Sure, Amy eventually did so much smack her feet bled and Beth duetted with Mika, but those transgressions pale in comparison to the horror of the female pop condition before Lily arrived on her bike, singing about her criminal record and the classiest way to avenge a love rat.
So unstoppable was her alpha female ascendancy that soon every label was creating its own lippy pop tart in her image. Called things like Remi, Kate, Katy or Jackie, some swam, some sank but none ever clawed their way into the nation’s psyche quite as tenaciously as our Lil. She’s undoubtedly the original, then, but as 2009 swings around with yet another roll-call of bright young hopefuls (La Roux, Little Boots, Lady Gaga…) is Allen still the best?
Where its predecessor began with Lily chirpily riding through town, peering through rose-tinted lenses oblivious to the route her life was about to take, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ picks up two-and-a-half years later in a very different place. Barricaded in her own front room from a garden full of paps, the comedown is rapidly growing roots. ‘The Fear’, ‘Not Fair’, ‘Fuck You’… a cursory glance at the song titles alone and it’s clear this time it’s not just the ex who’s decided it’s time to call in for a moan. “Please can we leave… It’s not just the sun that’s hurting my head now”, she sings on ‘Everyone’s At It’, sobering up at the end of a party to realise she’s surrounded by frauds, hypocrites and dullards. It’s a comment on her celebrity lifestyle.
It’s a comment on ‘Broken Britain’’s head-in-the-sand attitude to drug culture. And, sadly, it’s also set to be the most famous song on the album after the spot of bother she got into trying to explain away its not entirely anti-narcotic message. Sad, because in an album’s worth of crippling putdowns and self-denigration-turned-wry entertainment, it’s the only moment where Lily lets her hangover get the better of her and starts to sound just like the preachy, self-righteous naysayer she’s supposed to be standing up to.
‘The Fear’, the tremendous track that debuted last year and made a nation double-take with its indeterminate “Is it? Isn’t it?” irony (“Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner/And everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner”).
Or ‘Not Fair’, the prettiest song ever written about premature ejaculation. Or ‘I Could Say’, a crushingly honest liberation song set to a celestial piano soundtrack Sigur Rós would be well within their rights to sue over.
It’s not the only bit of plagiarism for the greater good; that Lily had to ask Take That’s permission to plunder ‘Shine’ for the cosily familiar ‘Who’d Have Known’ has already reached urban legend status. More unlikely still is the moment The Carpenters’ none-more-demure ‘Close To You’ gets reworked into anti-bigot anthem ‘Fuck You’. Its shameless showtune chorus is the ultimate Marmite moment in an album destined to divide listeners further into Lily deriders and devotees.
Even the groupies’ patience is tested: electroclash, reggae-pop, Broadway musical, ambient soundscapes, Creedence swamp-rock and Ennio Morricone spaghetti western (yes, they’re all there) are all par for the course, but surely it’s expecting too much from even the most dedicated follower to swallow her foray into Eastern European accordion folk (‘Never Gonna Happen’)?
It’s thanks to producer/co-writer Greg Kurstin’s Svengali-like orchestration of the whole project that the answer is an astonishing… no. The heavyweight LA collaborator, whose credit list reads Kylie, Beck, The Flaming Lips, Jane’s Addiction and ‘Alright, Still’’s rather sappy ‘Alfie’, has been given full control of Lily’s second – an unenviable task, given the scrutiny the past 30 months of yacht parties, TV series and awards ceremony meltdowns have laid it open to.
But despite it all, he’s helped deliver everything both artist and mercenary label boss could wish for. Songs that are ultra-modern and instantly accessible, fun but never cheesy, experimental but rarely try-hard. The final credit, though, must go to the lady herself. After all, it doesn’t really matter how many Cathy Dennises, Xenomanias, Pharrell Williams and Alex Turners you’ve got writing for you, there’s only one person who can deliver a line like “I’m feeling pretty damn hard done by/I’ve spent ages giving head” and still qualify for national institution status. And it’s not Little Boots.