It took four minutes and 23 seconds for Lily Allen to shed any goodwill she had built up in the five years since her last album dropped, which is impressive. The “Hard Out Here” video was supposed to be many things: a triumphant return, a humorous strike against the blatant sexism of Robin Thicke, a stance of solidarity shining through racial and class-based lines. On this last bit, it failed thoroughly. Allen’s intent may have been to show how rich white men control the bodies of women in music videos, but it came off as if she was controlling the black background singers herself. For an artist who had walked the line between cultural appropriation and earnest influence from black art, it was a surprising misfire. People called it racist, Allen said it wasn’t, and that was that. The oddly gamified chorus of subsequent single “Sheezus” compounded public confusion, and Allen’s album quickly descended into the background.
What do we talk about when we talk about Lily Allen and her 2014 album Sheezus? For the most part, nothing. Allen’s album, while debuting at #1 in England, was barely part of any critical conversation at all in the States. It’s not a great album, but it is a very good one; few releases this year were weirder. Sheezus, on levels both intentional and accidental, was secretly the most relevant album of 2014.
Allen is in many ways responsible for much of the pop music enjoyed by all this year. She has a rightful claim to being both the lyrical and stylistic progenitor of Charli XCX, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Sky Ferreira, Solange — essentially anyone making pop music who is not Taylor Swift. Over her first two albums, Alright, Still and It’s Not Me, It’s You, Allen incorporated many trends we take for granted now such as casual misandry (wishing violence upon rubbish blokes on “Knock ‘Em Out,” the video for “Smile”) and demands for sexual gratification without apology (“Not Fair,” “Never Gonna Happen”). While she was hardly the first woman to discuss these topics, she was the first to do so within her particular pop aesthetic, tapping into a vein of clarity that none of her peers could reach. Above all, Allen’s first two records share a sentiment expressed by Icona Pop in an early interview: “You can do whatever you want to and call it pop!” Reggae? Sure. Country? Absolutely. Polka? Allen contained multitudes, and much of the joy of those first two albums is listening to her figure out how to best describe herself. Cyrus’ decision to have Allen open for her in 2014 only solidifies the latter’s status as an elder stateswoman in pop.
Cyrus is one of the few female pop stars not called out on Sheezus’ opening title track. The first four songs on the album function like 2014’s most popular form of writing, the personal essay. They all flow together with lighter-than-air beats, including a magnetic laugh track on the title track. She talks about the reluctance she, or any sane person, would have in getting back into the celeb game at this point in time, with the only upside being able to jump into the game when it’s at such a high point. From there, it’s several tracks of catch-up: How’s her sex life? Great, the dude can last for forever (“L8 CMMR“). Does she smoke a lot of weed? So much that she hallucinates making out with Elvis (“Air Balloon“). What’s her record collection like? Full of Def Jam (the album’s weakest and slightest track, “Our Time“). In short: Allen’s life is really great, finally matching the sunny disposition of her sounds.
Are there problems? Sure. She’s bothered that people don’t understand the issues of emotional labor in entertainment, and on “Insincerely Yours” she has a chorus that goes “Let’s be clear / I’m here to make / money, money,” a surprising reveal considering how comebacks are usually widely seen as cash-grabs but hardly acknowledged as such. And she feels bad about her weight on “Close Your Eyes,” but, in a rare musical move that shows how people can still feel desire even when they feel not-red-100-emoji about their bodies, the song ends up as a genuinely cute ode to role playing and anal sex.
When an artist finds that their source of creative tension smoothed over, they have three main options. One is to acknowledge it and move on. Another is to look elsewhere. The third is to question if that happiness is real. In a bold move, Allen goes for all three. The most combative section of the album — and its creative peak — comprises the back-to-back confrontations “URL Badman” and “Silver Spoon.” As the critic Gary Suarez noted on Twitter, if “URL Badman” had been Sheezus’ first foot forward, it’s very possible the reaction to the album as a whole would have been completely different. 2014 was the year being a woman online broke. Years of pent-up micro and macro tensions involving harassment became the “next civil rights issue.” The gender gap in everything from dating sites to music writing was exposed. For all of these frustrations, but especially that last one, “URL Badman” tried its hardest to be an anthem. It’s a brutally accurate parody of a certain type of dude on Music Internet, convinced of their own importance and Twitter-focused dreams: “I don’t troll, I make statements…Real talk, I’ll put the world to rights, and when I’m a big boy I’m gonna write for Vice.” Allen’s ability to skewer shines through in her attention to detail. The song namechecks relatively minor peaks in the online music scene, from SpaceGhostPurrp to Jamie xx remixes — the sorts of things that wouldn’t be worth mentioning unless you wanted everyone to know that you know about them. It’s the most effective song on Sheezus, one that has a laser-locked mission and hits with perfect accuracy.
Approaching satire from the victim’s perspective works again on “Silver Spoon,” but this time Allen’s scope is broader: that of class. Her protagonist is right out of a Jarvis Cocker or Will Sheff song, someone who can’t stop showcasing their wealth but demands to change the subject as soon as it becomes a point of criticism. The electro-beat zooms in and out of focus, much like the protagonist’s confidence. Allen’s characters blend in and out of her personal life at her will, and “Silver Spoon” gladly incorporates part of reality to attack the rich. With her personal life having calmed down, Allen expends much of her rage on Sheezus attacking a broken system. “Hard Out Here” was the most prominent of these missives as well as the one that missed the mark.
A calm personal life doesn’t mean total satisfaction, of course. After an album of hearing about how great Allen’s life is, “Life for Me,” nestled near the end of the album, comes off as a bit of a shock: She’s envious of all the fun her friends are having, and she doesn’t want to have sex with the husband whose sex-having abilities we’ve heard so much about. “‘Been there and done that’ was good for nothing,” she says. In what sounds half like a reassurance and half like a tempted priest reciting his vows, she goes into the chorus, “This is the life for me, this is the life for me, yeah.” It’s a track whose power only really comes if you’ve heard all of Sheezus before it. It’s a dense album with light beats about the complexities of age, money and gender, as told the very specific lens of a white British woman. It’s the same as it was in 2006, honestly: Nobody in 2014 could make an album like Lily Allen’s if they tried.
[Photo by Neil Lupin/Redferns.]