Monotony in the U.K.

Lily Allen rouses her fans, but not herself

Lily Allen, 21-year-old British pop star, introduces "Smile," her number-one-in-the-U.K. hit, like this: "This next song was my number-one single in the U.K." This is her first New York show—first show in the U.S.—and it is sold out. From where I'm standing, she's not five yards away; between the two of us looms a dense, tangled swath of photographers, writers, and video camera operators. There are, also, clearly some ordinary people who took pleasure in Alright Still, Lily's overseas debut, and are here to enjoy themselves. Lily Allen does not appear to be one of those people.

As of tonight, she is one album (out stateside in January) and about 15 shows into her new life as a person who performs in front of an audience for a living, and this is a big audience. She's got gold around her neck and wrists; wrapped in a two-tone dress, she's one of a seemingly endless number of beautiful girls in the room. Like them, her affect is minimal: for stage presence, she makes walking gestures with her fingers ("You walk to the post office to pick up your pension") or acts like those same fingers are scissors ("You only buy the paper just to cut out the coupons"). On "Knock 'Em Out," she tells some guy she's pregnant so he'll leave her alone, rubbing her belly as she spits the line.

"I do feel a bit nervous tonight playing in New York City," she notes between songs. Who could doubt it?

As the keys playfully trilled out the opening to "Knock 'Em Out," she turned a hugely endearing full circle; later, she capped "Littlest Things," her ode to a lost man who used to let her wear his boxer shorts and held her hand whenever she was nervous, with a triumphant "The guy I wrote that song about I'm back together with—so it worked." This is the Lily Allen charm—unvarnished subjectivity, total honesty about just how petty her stakes really are.

Like the ad lib, her album tracks sparkle for being improvised, tossed-off, fleeting. But tonight, the same tracks are disconcertingly leaden, offered up less like jokes and more like dead weight, the ragged brass reggae (on Tuesday performed by a stylin' horn trio, a bassist, and a keyboardist) of Alright Still slowed down to a syrupy crawl. It was a comedown from the rigorous two-DJ warm-up we'd just received—one, the U.K.'s dorkily sincere mash-rap-with-rock-for-an-hour king Mark Ronson, who called the other, Aaron LaCrate, "the Baltimore murder king"—as their goofily amped party jams hit a dead end in a live Lily Allen.

Across the street, a bewildered English tourist queried a friend about all the fuss out on the street. "Lily Allen," she wondered. "I didn't know she was big here." She isn't yet. And the vibrantly upbeat pessimism that had drawn the crowd here began to look, in the creepy red lights of the Hiro Ballroom, more like cynicism as she monotoned her way through an eight-song set. During the encore, someone threw roses. Eventually she picked them up, waved them, put them back down. Hold the accolades.

 
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