Review: Lily Allen’s “It’s Not Me, It’s You”

Feb 17, 2009 6:41pm

  Do Americans even know how to make a decent pop album anymore?  Sadly, I’m beginning to think at the moment the answer is no.  While States-side pop is becoming increasingly soulless and transparently commercial, across the pond there seems to be a pop renaissance, particularly when it comes to female singers.  A quick list comes to mind.  Amy Winehouse is probably the most famous of the pack but probably due to her troublingly epic backstage struggles.  She’s not the only one, however.  Duffy, Adele, Corinne Bailey Rae and even Imogen Heap and M.I.A. stack up as talents to watch.  They can take on any one of our pop stars.  The problem is simple.  The British for many years have been musical innovators.  Since the British invasion, they have given us a steady stream of greatness. (The Spice Girls stand out sadly as the most obvious exception to the rule. Try as they might, they were never cool. However, in an imperfect world without absolutes, there are bound to be deviations from time to time.)  In general, I think the British succeed because they don’t forget the importance of edge.  Each one of the singers listed above has her own distinct personality.  She brings her own game to the table.  She’s not interchangeable with her peers.  That’s where the U.S. pop scene has made a massive mistake.  The last great, true American pop star is Madonna.  In her prime, she showed she could innovate, be herself, have massive hooks and sell a lot of records.  Now, the landscape is such that personality is overshadowed by formula.  One song sounds like the others because behind the scenes the same sonic architects are in change of the manipulation.  If these “producers” have only a few ideas, it becomes stale.  It’s gotten to the point that if you’ve heard one Timbaland-produced track, you’ve heard them all.  The same goes with the Neptunes.  (If you’ve heard Madonna’s recent records, even she’s been slightly diminished by the homogenization of the American pop scene.) The way things currently stand, the industry is so bad that anything which deviates from the accepted pop system in the U.S. is labeled “Alternative,” an over-expansive umbrella term used to describe anything uneasy to describe.  Increasingly, it seems like those in charge of programming our radio stations and marketing our records aren’t giving us enough credit to understand nuance and complexity of any source. Too many are afraid to go against the grain and thus, in the U.S., innovation on a grand, mainstream pop level seems like a virtually dead concept.    Pink occasionally seems to straddle that line of distinction but she is an exception in a field of drones! Alicia Keys and other classic R&B revivalists like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott also are unique, but they are essentially within a whole other genre entirely.  If you want to be popular and you want to be “mainstream” in the U.S. there are very strict guidelines and thus pop music has suffered. For the most part, I would blame the cookie-cutter nature of such pop showcases as “American Idol,” for the death of innovation. It’s ironic that show in itself is a British import. But then again, there are tons of low-grade British pop acts we don’t get to hear over here for good reason.  When was the last time you heard the Sugababes or Girls Aloud over here?  My point, exactly! Usually only the best British pop music makes it over here, just like many innovative American rock bands like the Pixies make it over there long before it is accepted over here.  In general, the British are ahead of the curve and it’s time we catch up! Why such a tirade? Why am I bemoaning the death of American pop?  The British keep delivering great records while we for the most part continue to falter. Lily Allen, who arguably helped usher in the current pop-driven British rebirth has released her second album, “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” and I’m struck by how it continues to show her as a unique personality.  This isn’t the “look at me while I dance around half-naked desperately seeking approval” approach of let’s say Britney Spears.  This is the opposite of that.  These are thoughtful, edgy pop songs showcasing Allen being herself.  In comparison, most American pop comes off as vacant. The idea of “thoughtful pop” seems like an oxymoron from the American perspective, but the Brits continually prove that it can be done.  Pop can and should have a brain!  It can be witty. It can be observant.  It can be sweet and melodic while at the same time shockingly sharp.  Allen’s first album, “Alright, Still,” was more of an establishing party record.  This album is a mellower, deeper, more reflective affair.  Both albums are equal in their level of quality.  Considering the above paragraphs, it should be noted that like much of her last album, this album was produced by Greg Kurstin of the Bird and the Bee.  Kurstin is American!  Interestingly the sound he’s used with Allen isn’t that different from that of his duo with Inara George.  Proving my point, the Bird and the Bee are often isolated in the midst of the “adult-alternative” crowd but they are at their essence a pop duo.  Kurstin is an alt-rock veteran who has channeled everything he knows into crafting shiny pop records. Perhaps it’s partly for this reason that Allen’s records are liked equally among pop fans and hipster critics.  Unfortunately, Kurstin saved his better work for this record, considering The Bird and the Bee’s somewhat disappointing recent release “Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future.” Allen begins her album with “Everyone’s At It,” a song about the drug culture and how we are all (like it or not) are part of a growing group of dependents, relying on various substances to numb our senses and maintain some sort of concept of normalcy.  It’s a biting, fitting critique.  Even most of those who claim they do not partake do in one way or another.  “Why can’t we all just be honest? / Admit to ourselves that everyone’s on it. / From grown politicians to young adolescents / Prescribing themselves anti-depressants.” The tune is brooding and the scope is big.  It sounds a little like a movie-monster’s theme.  Perhaps this is done on purpose and the lurking evils are our various addictions.  Lead single, “The Fear” is about our materialistic and celebrity-centric culture.  Delivered with her signature brand of snarkiness, this makes a profoundly sad statement about the direction we are headed. She says at one point, “Life’s about film stars and less about mothers. / It’s all about fast cars and cussing each other.”  She later adds, “I am a weapon of massive consumption and it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.”  Compared to the average Britney Spears track, this is a dissertation, indicting society for its misguidance.  Allen’s songs have depth.  It’s a rare artist who can deliver songs which are both fun to listen to and somewhat cerebral.  Lily Allen frequently delivers on both fronts.   She’s the thinking-person’s pop singer.  “Not Fair” is more cheeky in nature.  It’s like a sequel to the “Alright, Still” track, “Not Big.”  This time she’s involved with a man who is good but has a major problem.  He cannot satisfy her sexually.  Much like the before-mentioned track, it’s an anthem full of frustration and sass.  While not quite as thought-provoking as the previous two songs, it effectively shows why Allen is beloved.  She’s never afraid to deal with taboo subjects and always does so in a very winning, appealing way.   Interestingly, the track is built around a hoe-down style beat with what sound like banjos providing an uncharacteristic backdrop. “22″ is a snap-heavy track about a nearly 30-year-old trying to live like she’s 22. It’s about lost youth in an age when if you over 30, you are considered over-the-hill. (“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”)  It’s about that moment in your life when you realize you aren’t as young as you used to be and you begin to take stock of where you have gone and what you need to do to enjoy the rest of your life.  The fact that our culture is so youth-obsessed is frightening. Why do we idolize the young?  Thirty is by no means even close to being old, so why is there this absurd crunch?  Lily Allen is here to rightfully point out once again that all of our collective sensibilities are clearly out of whack.  “I Could Say” is a humbling break-up song about the realism of the wisdom brought by failed relationships.  She sings, “Since you’ve gone I’ve lost that chip on my shoulder. / Since you’ve gone I feel like I’ve gotten older. / Now you’re gone it’s as if the whole wide world is my stage. / Now you’re gone it’s like I’ve been let out of my cage.” It’s sad to watch something die but at the same time sometimes you come out better on the other side.  This would make an excellent single.  “Back To The Start” has an appealing eighties-synth-pop feel.  It’s another song about a dysfunctional relationship but this time Allen casts herself as the uncaring one. The quickly paced beat and the rapid-fire chorus make it another potential single.  Once again, Lily Allen is hitting them all out of the park.  “Never Gonna Happen” is an accordion-driven stomp, kissing-off an unwanted suitor.  Allen’s got a bit of old-school vaudeville and tin-pan alley in her delivery.  She and Kurstin are not afraid to try out new sounds.  Next comes “F____ You,” a blistering (but at first innocent sounding) song where she blasts those who are racist, homophobic and otherwise undesirable with the chorus of “F____ you very, very much! /  ‘Cause we hate what you do and we hate your whole crew, / So please don’t say in touch.”  It’s not the most productive approach to the closed-minded people of the world, but it’s humorous and cathartic.  “Who’d Have Known” shows Lily Allen at the peak of her powers.  This is definitely a single-worthy track full of love and sweetness.  It’s about the great feelings of a new relationship.  Sonically, this shows Allen’s softer side.  It sounds similar to the “Alright, Still” single, “Littlest Things.”  Anyone who has ever fallen in love can surely relate.  “Chinese” is similarly sentimental, about eating Chinese food, watching TV and walking the dog.  It’s about the comfort of being at home with someone you love.  It’s a beautiful piece and it gloriously floats by your ears. “Him” is the third track in a row to have a similar sonic tone but it questions the existence of a god and wonders if there is one, what he is like.   It’s a series of questions about what qualities God would have.  She even brings up 9-11 and the way religion is used to wrongly justify acts of evil, by saying, “Ever since he can remember, people have died in his good name. / Long before that September, / Long before hijacking planes.”  Lily Allen has shown a pattern of always questioning everything.  Her songwriting shows her to be inquisitive.  She will never settle for the status quo.  Concepts of theology are just her latest target.  “He Wasn’t There” again finds her singing in an older style.  Backed by fuzzy piano-chording, she sounds like she should be singing in supper club somewhere.  It’s a loving song about the virtues in letting a relationship blossom and giving it time to grow. It closes the album on a positive note. The album also comes with enhancements.  Put the disc in your computer and there’s a way to remix each track.  Something similar came with “Alright, Still” and it made for some fun experimentation.  Also, through your computer, you can access an acoustic version of “22.”  “It’s Not Me, It’s You” shows Lily Allen as a maturing artist who has a great deal to offer.    Hopefully she’ll be making records for quite some time.  Like many of the recent pop stars from across the pond, she’s proven to be every bit worth the hype.  This album is a winner and it gets better with every listen.   Well done!

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