Lily Allen Is Vibrant and Fearless on Appropriately Titled ‘No Shame’

English singer-songwriter and consummate provocateur Lily Allen has established an iconic persona for herself, perhaps most succinctly encapsulated by the anthemic single, “Fuck You,” from her equally characteristically-titled 2009 record, “It’s Not Me, It’s You.” Such gelignite feistiness often blows a short fuse, and leaves artists living modestly in the countryside, painting watercolors and tending to gardens. Fortunately for millions of pink-haired, particularly vibrant trash-talkers, Allen is hardly tamer on her new album “No Shame.”

While this is essentially the standard, aggressively unfiltered, unapologetically opinionated fare we’ve come to expect from Allen, one unprecedented, distinguishing factor in this album is that it directs some of that energy inward as well as outward. There’s more, say, self-introspection — albeit in a very Lily Allen way, meaning that you can immediately relieve yourself of any fears that she’s devolved into any sort of gentle, musing, hippie form that the connotations might suggest. The chorus of the aforementioned song features the lines, “That’s why I can’t hang with the cool gang / Everyone’s a trigger bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.” In the era of “trigger warnings,” this line can be perplexing, as Allen seems like the type that would be triggered by either nothing or everything. And actually, there’s a certain “bipolarity” to the lyrics that suggests just this.  

In “Family Man,” Allen sings, “I know that you love me / Though I’m young and stupid / I am wild and ruthless / You’re better off without me,” and continues, “It’s not always easy / being a family man / Baby, don’t leave me.”  This self-deprecating imploring takes a strikingly different tune elsewhere, however, as on “Higher,” with the lyrics, “I can take this down to the wire / Soon see if I fight fire with fire / Dig that grave / You’re such a bad liar / Stakes gettin’ higher and higher and higher and higher.” The chorus that follows, “Higher, higher, higher (high-high-higher,)” is a particularly memorable moment, as it turns the age-old cliche of “higher” as blissful, amorous ecstasy right on its face, instead hammering in the sadistic, vindictive pronouncement of allowing the stakes to get higher, and reveling in the conflict. The sentiment is reiterated, even with more gusto in “Waste,” with the declaration, “Can’t wait to see you break, break, break, break, break, break.” Allen means business.

Even if Allen’s stark vivacity shows no sign of diminishing, it is palpable that this album is a product from a different stage in the singer’s life. This bares itself in the thematic preoccupation with time that features in many songs. Consider “Waste,” with the lyrics, “You played more than a feature… You were on my team / You were a bobber and a weaver / You’re just a pagan now, non believer.” The sentient is echoed in, “Lost My Mind,” with the words, “Once or twice I’ve seen your soul / We weren’t always strangers.” There are few things that can amount to such a direct stab to the heart as a tease of kindred spiritedness cooly evaporated into thin air. Allen describes, “I let you in and then you disappear / Like a dying of another day.” Again, it’s the awareness of time ticking away, with the death of one day merely an incremental step in the larger inevitably of death at large. The resulting confusion makes its way into the song “Family Man,” in the lines, “Every day has its challenges / I just never know what day it is.” After all, you can only perceive time by comparing it’s passage to your own passage through it. When you’re three years old, a year seems like an eternity because it’s one third of your life; at age 30, however, it’s only natural that a year just flies by. Before you know it, you might find yourself suddenly in a situation that Allen articulates immaculately in her song “Apples.” The track comes midway through the record, at a point where some of the rather uninspired musicality, and played-out angsty posturing can have grown a bit irksome–but she expresses the sentiment with such effortless, spot-on precision to restore your enthused admiration in a flash.

Allen sings, “One year in you gave me, a set of keys / Two years and you bended down on one knee / Three years and we’re living out in the country… Now I’m exactly where I didn’t want to be / I’m just like my mummy and my daddy.” This develops into the deceptively simplistic outro, “I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” And with this time-sensitive urgency, Allen makes it clear that she has no intentions of allowing anyone to impede her. In “Trigger Bang,” she asserts, “If you cool my ambitions / I’m gonna cut you out, and  continues, “Goodbye bad bones, I’ve got bigger plans.” In “Everything to Feel Something,” she seems to have positioned herself with crossed arms, singing, “I don’t want to fall in love / No, all I need is for someone to walk all over me / Close the door behind you please.” Yet, the forbidding, militantly defensive and cynical posture seems more of an underscored gesture than a zealously adopted worldview, as indicated by some of the sweeter lyrics on the record.

In “My One,” Allen sings, “I woke up in Austin, Texas / I did decline to stay for breakfast / Cos I need my one.” The sentiment is simple enough: sex is sex, and love is love. And it’s refreshing and admirable to see a female flipping the script. Allen delves into more saccharine territory in “Pushing Up Daisies,” but does it with enough sprightly character to situate it well past the terrain of sobfests. The song is basically a lyrical reimagining of The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” although this time going as far as to imagine Allen and her special one in their eighties. She muses, “When we’re just a strain on the NHS / Will you stay with me? / Swanning round here in my slippers and dressing gown / Hope you’d give me a dressing down.”

“No Shame” is a title that sets the bar high, and some of the music here will leave listeners amused and confused. There are plenty guest spots, usually from rappers with Caribbean stylings, and while it adds flavor to the songs, it often sounds farcically forced, as if no thought went into the craftwork of the collaboration. It’s as if a record producer loved cheese and loved chocolate, and concluded without hesitation that a chunk of cheddar would be a delightful addition to his pudding. Another arguable weakness is that the musicality here can strike as creatively uninspired. It can be predictable, and it’s not the type of sound that gives you an overwhelming rush to the head and heart. Perhaps, however, this fits well with the lyrics; if you say things unpolished and unfiltered, you might as well play things unpolished and unfiltered as well. Allen’s album title choice should make it clear how much she cares. And she sums it up in the last song “Cake,” saying, “I don’t see no reason you can’t / Have your cake and eat it.” So listen to the record, and let it digest. Once it’s processed, it’ll have become part of you, and you can always chew on bits by giving the songs another listen.

No Shame” is available June 8 on Apple Music.