If Sheezus was Lily Allen’s Yeezus (it wasn’t, but never mind), then No Shame is her 808s & Heartbreak, the sound of a hugely talented and ferociously funny pop star collapsing in on herself personally and attempting to echo that artistically. This is as dramatic a departure from Sheezus as 808s was from Graduation; it represents the bitter comedown after an energetic party. Yep, it’s a breakup record too, written and recorded in the years following her divorce from Sam Cooper.
It’s painful to listen to for long-term fans of Allen’s. We’ve listened to her blossom from a sexually frustrated youngster, who found it “Not Fair” that a lover would finish so quickly in bed, into a married woman proud to have at last found a “L8 CMMR”. And what’s happened since then? Try this line from “Apples”: “We were both depressed/Towards the end we were not even having sex.”
It’s one of the bleakest lines on a terribly bleak album, because we know, and have been reminded very often throughout her very public career, just how much Lily Allen likes sex. In fact, we’re even reminded of it earlier on in the very same song, as she nostalgically mourns: “Do you remember way back when, at my old flat/We’d stay in bed all day having sex and smoking fags?” The way she sings those lines, matter-of-factly yet with an unmistakeable melancholy that manifests itself in the way she almost whispers the words, as if she’s lost all self-assuredness, is subtly unnerving to hear. And the fact that the musical accompaniment to her lost voice is almost non-existent makes it even more unnerving. She is bare, exposed, and fragile.
The end of her marriage has also brought an end to the upbeat drive of her early music; here on No Shame it’s nearly all minimalist production, with slow ballads the norm and beats only softly pulsing in the background. Only certain trap elements remind you that it’s still contemporary pop, and only occasional guest spots from the grime world (Giggs and her current partner Meridian Dan) and the international scene (Burna Boy, Lady Chann) remind you of her music’s adventurous and globetrotting past (although the reggae beat of “Waste” could almost have fit on Alright, Still).
It’s all a little dispiriting, as it was no doubt intended to be. Yet this is not adventurous enough to be a divorce album on the level of Here, My Dear or Blood on the Tracks; the music is frosty and lacking in passion, with uninspired beats and unmemorable production on most of the tracks putting up a barrier between the listener and any attempt to really get inside Allen’s mind and understand how she feels. The words are blunt and, yes, as that old cliché goes, “deeply personal”, but the tunes themselves are blank enough to resist personal investment. We are told how Allen feels, repeatedly, but not shown by the music, which is simply nondescript.
There are some exceptions, as there always will be with such a talented artist. “Waste” springs into action after the most subdued segment of the album (the piano ballad sequence “Family Man”-“Apples”-“Three”-“Everything to Feel Something”) and snaps you back to remember what made Allen so great when she first burst onto the scene in 2006, with the sarcastic bounce of the reggae groove deepening the wicked cheap shots of the lyrics: “Who the fuck are you though?”, “Can’t wait to see you break, break, break, break, break, break, breaking your back”, “Keep talking, I’m unimpressed/You’re way too out of your depth” etc.
And if you want sincere from this album, how about “Lost My Mind”? It discovers real poignancy not in the keys of a piano (that instrument so often overused in pop to denote “sincerity”), but in the electronic thrum and changeability of the beats, variously clicking and clacking and thrumming away, which paint a picture of confusion, the kind that comes towards the end of a relationship where your world is rapidly turning upside down and nothing seems real any more. It’s quietly impressive.
Overall, though, the music on this album doesn’t compel you to feel much beyond sympathy for Allen in her personal turmoil – and sympathy alone has never made for a great album. Empathy is what makes an album great, when it puts you in the mind of its creator or (as is most often the case) the creator’s fictional self, and really makes you comprehend their inner life, to the point where you might better understand your own.
No Shame doesn’t achieve that. Which is, well, a shame.