Lily Allen’s third album, Sheezus, is a hot mess of thorny contradictions that finds the U.K. singer sifting the post-mortem of that oft-discussed millennial-manufactured calamity: the quarter-life crisis. That she does so without vacuous navel-gazing or the obnoxious whine of entitlement is reason enough to welcome her back into the fold.
Few artists have the ego to use the title of their comeback to riff on that of the most fearsomely dark, avant-garde “pop” albums ever made. Doing so before all the critical ink about Yeezus is barely dry is tantamount to demanding the loudest scorn possible from your detractors. Anything less than a game-changing remix of pop’s lexicon risks being labeled a lame mashup of Weird Al and Austin Powers: cheeky but toothless, and instantly dated.
Only the title track courts the same frantic sonic territory as Yeezus, and it’s decidedly without the narcotized paranoia and self-loathing of West’s opus. The schizophrenic busy-ness of the music (a chorus of hyper-chopped vocal samples and sirens over a sleazy, Miami-strip-club-friendly beat) isn’t a reflection of its creator’s tortured psyche; it’s just faux-edgy frippery over which to throw gently wry shade at fellow pop stars Katy Perry, Lorde, and Lady Gaga. As apocalypse-mimicking battle tracks go, “Sheezus” is as catchy, self-effacing, and sunnily benign as one can get.
The lack of sonic innovation is irrelevant though. Allen’s strength has always been her amusingly spike-tongued worldview, most popularly demonstrated in her debut single, “Smile.” That charismatic venom is still happily intact on Sheezus, even if it doesn’t show up as often as it once did. In place of the bilious grin and heedless decadence which once made her dangerous to pop radio is a kind of tuneful showbiz professionalism. It’s not unlike that of a perfectly cast Broadway soundtrack album: Even when the songwriting is less than revolutionary, the performance holds your attention. “Life for Me” even sounds like a deep cut from the Little Mermaid musical, albeit one where Ariel opines for the days when she could still get fucked up with her friends. “Hard Out Here” mines the same territory, imagining “Summer Nights” remixed by Herbie Hancock and given a post-feminist rewrite. (As if fearing accusations of a more serious, politically minded Allen, longtime producer Greg Kurstin slathers an almost shocking amount of superfluous Auto-Tune on top.)
Kurstin needn’t have worried, as bubblegum still holds sway in the soul of Sheezus. Tracks like “Air Balloon” may tout that “Kurt Cobain is in [Allen’s] veins,” but it’s still indistinguishable from the happily insensible pop on which Disney has built a radio empire. “Our Time” may have the restless youth of “Born Slippy” in its lyrics, but it still sounds suspiciously similar to Vitamin C’s “Graduation Day.” Even when mining influences that are likely foreign to most of Allen’s younger audience (as on the pair of slick ’80s Commodores soundalikes, “Insincere” and “Close Your Eyes”), Kurstin gives the material a neutering, era-nonspecific gloss designed to alienate as few listeners as possible.
That unfashionable conservatism is probably for the best, however, given the album’s two incalculably dire gestures toward the current zeitgeist. The first, “As Long As I Got You,” resembles Shania Twain fronting a polka Charlie Daniels cover band, one that’s just now learning the features of its drum machine. That isn’t Sheezus’s nadir though. In the earnest race to the laziest common denominator, “URL Badman,” a foray into dubstep that arrives prepackaged in mold, sports proudly idiotic, shamelessly retrograde “You can’t touch my man” lyrics that make the Pussycat Dolls read like Camille Paglia.
The sudden turn toward Eisenhower-era gender politics and X-Games background noise is disturbing, but it’s so mercifully brief that one is inclined to blame an out-of-touch producer and possibly a nasty bout of fever delirium. The other paean to awesome manhood, “L8 CMMR,” is a comparatively harmless celebration of young love. Though it’s disconcerting to hear Allen in giggly, maximum-gush mode, the song’s dirty bassline and PG-13 lyrics celebrating the healing powers of a really good lay are just stealthy enough to slip past parental ears and inspire winking sing-alongs among the tweens it was intended for.
One wonders if genially ineffectual subversion is what Allen intended to convey on Sheezus, or whether she’s just been gone too long to know what shocks the suburbs these days. Her role in her heyday as a brazenly vulgar teenage antiheroine was honestly more a result of well-shaped PR than anything else. Freed from the burden of hollow rebellious posturing, Allen can be appreciated for the dazzling, lighter-waving populism of songs like alpha-ballad “Take My Place” or her elegantly gigantic cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know.” These songs will never bend the future of pop music in their image like Yeezus, but that doesn’t diminish their uncanny power to recreate the wild rushes of tempestuous emotion that are both the privilege and the curse of teenagers everywhere.