By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
I am concerned about the long-term sustainability of Lily Allen's obsession with writing songs about her unsatisfying sexual encounters; for her own sake, I hope this is not an inexhaustible resource. First, she cooed, "I'm going to tell the world you're rubbish in bed now" on the rather literally titled "Not Big," one of the finer acidic ska-pop ditties on her retro-tinged, MySpace-coronated 2006 debut, Alright, Still. Two years, one harrowing miscarriage, and countless tabloid debacles/petty feuds/inebriated fiascoes/manufactured Web controversies later, on the new It's Not Me, It's You, the lethally saucy Londoner returns with "Not Fair," a far less ridiculous title for a far more ridiculous song. Against a resoundingly goofy quasi-spaghetti western backdrop, Lily describes her near-perfect boyfriend and his fatally flawed bedside manner: "I look into your eyes/I want to get to know you/And then you make this noise, and it's apparent it's all over." Further complaints: "You never make me scream," "I spent ages giving head," and "All you do is take." Here we have "Jizz in My Pants" from the female perspective. Whether we asked for it or not.
Lily recently crowed to an interviewer that she played "Not Fair" for the poor chump who inspired it, and he remains nonetheless oblivious; I, meanwhile, am wondering how many more poor chumps she intends to shame. What happens when she runs out of lousy lays? Will she sacrifice life in the name of art to manufacture more? Will she start trawling junior highs, screenings of Watchmen, and EMP conferences? Or will she just write more songs about drugs, celebrity, God, and George W. Bush?
Great on those first two. It's Not You sadly dumps much of Alright's feather-light, kiddie-reggae effervescence, with louder, heavier, busier synth-pop enormo-jams that threaten to bury our acerbic heroine. But Lily survives. The contrast between the lithe cheerfulness of her delivery and the vicious bite of the sentiments she delivers is astounding: "I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds/I hope people die while they're trying to find them," she purrs on "The Fear," a (presumably) sarcastic celebration of tabloid hedonism-"I look at The Sun, and I look in the Mirror," etc. "Everyone's At It," meanwhile, is a remarkably earnest drug-abuse hand-wringer, rhyming "adolescents" with "antidepressants," "Prozac" with "takes crack." Completing the Societal Ills Trifecta is "22," a sort of violent Sex and the City corrective about lonely, wayward, immature, party-animal late-twentysomethings horrified by the notion that they're now pushing 30 with nothing tangible to show for it: "It's sad, but it's true how society says her life is already over."
This is big game that Lily's hunting: quietly seething assaults on the sexist celebrity-meltdown industry that vaulted her to fame in the first place. (Britney Spears has been on this warpath for years.) As such, they're far from devastating Oscar Wilde bon mots, but she's crass and flippant and arrogant and over-wordy and precocious and painfully clever in a way that's still somehow winsome; Tuesday night at Bowery Ballroom, playing a MySpace Secret Show to celebrate It's Not Me's release, she shuffled about in a red dress and black gloves, often singing with a mic in one hand and a half-full pint glass of white wine in the other, as if seriously deliberating over which one to bring to her mouth. She labored to explain the meaning and intended target behind every song before it began and, as the show went on, gleefully mocked herself for doing so-it's fascinating to encounter someone who takes songwriting so literally, conceives them as weapons, rebuttals, explanations, apologies. Live, she stumbles all over the mercilessly overstuffed chorus of "Back to the Start," but its blatant and seemingly very earnest plea of reconciliation to a sister who she has apparently abused and ignored is disarming in its pragmatic candor: "This is not just a song/I intend to put these words into action/I hope that it sums up the way that I feel to your satisfaction."
Yes, her odes to God (the befuddling "Him," in which our deity's favorite band is revealed to be Creedence Clearwater Revival) and G.W.B. (long story short, its title is "Fuck You") are pretty terrible. And the aforementioned lousy-in-bed series is either a dead end or absolutely not worth the personal trauma it would take to keep alive. But some combination of simple and complex, sweet and unbearably bitter, helps elevate Lily somewhat over the Pinks, the Kate Nashes, the (grrr!) Katy Perrys. Odd, then, that her high points are still relatively uncerebral love songs: "We'll eat Chinese and watch TV" presented as romantic utopia. At the Bowery, she hit hardest with Alright's "Littlest Things," which is, mercifully, not another bad-sex excoriation, but instead a breezy and wistful lamentation of a bygone love affair that jams in a lot of words but never tips over into cynicism or sarcasm or unbearable cleverness. She sings the hell out of it, and then "Smile" (her big cynical hit about the deadbeat ex-boyfriend whose pain makes her happy), and then the one about wanting fuckloads of diamonds, and then, for the hell of it, her brusque cover of Britney Spears's "Womanizer." There are still so many inept boys left to embarrass.