Over a decade ago, Lily Allen burst into the pop mainstream with “Smile,” a cheery song that wrapped its withering indictments of a straying lover in Jackie Mittoo keyboards and skipping-stone grooves. The combination of Allen’s voice – which, thanks in part to Mark Ronson’s retro-minded production, brought to mind a British cousin of hyper-feminine ’60s pop thrushes like France Gall and Petula Clark – and her poison-pen observations about modern love proved catnip for listeners. She showed she was more than just a one-joke wonder with her 2006 debut Alright, Still, slaking MySpace denizens’ thirst for the sort of Internet-endemic behavior that would later be dubbed “subtweeting” and reaching the top of the pops in the UK and the rest of Europe.
But with that fame came a greater spotlight, and the aftereffects of being in its glare for more than 10 years are in striking effect on No Shame, which comes four years after Allen’s brash bid for American stardom Sheezus. Allen’s voice is still in fine spun-sugar form on No Shame, which opens with the simmering fake-friend takedown “Come On Then” (“If you go on record saying that you know me/Then why am I so lonely?/Cos nobody fucking phones me,” she snaps) and grapples with divorce, addiction and depression over its 14 tracks. But the insouciance that marked her earliest singles has been replaced by a world-weariness and more open perspective.
No Shame, despite its title, is a quiet album; it’s almost like Allen is processing her hangover from the past 12 years in real time, using delicate piano arpeggios and skittering snares to cushion her headache. She sounds detached, as if she’s an omniscient narrator describing her problems from a stealth vantage point – which makes her plainspoken lyrics hit even harder. On “Higher,” Allen operates mostly in falsetto as she castigates an someone whose lies have dragged her down, her voice only drooping when she sings “higher and higher and higher”; “Everything to Feel Something,” meanwhile, is a brutal portrait of nihilistic depression, Allen sounding like a ghost as she describes the Sisyphean task of making herself feel again, then breaking into a frustrated sob-sing as she sings of trying “everything, everything, everything” to get well. “Three,” a working-mom portrait written from the perspective of her daughters, exposes the lie at the center of women “having it all” in a harrowing way, foreshadowing her kids’ resentments-to-be in simple yet effective ways.
“Family Man” is the showiest moment – a big piano ballad written to John/Taupin specs – and also the moment where Allen leans most noticeably into her voice, opening up the vowels on her “baby”-s as they pretzel toward a place where loving means leaving. “Cake,” the final track, rights the ship, with its “Smile”-like tempo and Allen’s acrobatic vocal runs, but there’s still a bit of uneasiness: “There’s some light/Think you need it/ You look so god-damn defeated/ Why’d you feel so cheated?/ Best believe it,” she coos as the music drops out on the bridge. No Shame might sound placid on its surface, but a closer listen reveals that as her sonics have become more gentle, Allen’s truth bombs have become even more explosive.