Lily Allen always had a way with words. The UK pop star may have been a walking tabloid headline over the past decade, but she always managed to wrestle the attention back to the music with three interesting – yet unbalanced – albums, marrying her knack for sunny reggae and electro beats with witty and caustic lyrics.
However, after years of using her pen as an observer of British society's quirks and ills, she now points it at herself with her revelatory new release No Shame.
Indeed, this is what divorce does. Allen is the latest in a long line of musicians who have used the album format to meditate over "what went wrong". On that score, the album's contemplative nature is closer in spirit to Bruce Springsteen's 1987 genre masterpiece Tunnel of Love. Like Springsteen, who ditched the E Street Band for the album to maintain his focus, Allen has done away with American producer Greg Kurstin, who was behind many of her biggest hits including The Fear and Not Fair.
This time around, she worked mostly with UK art-pop producer Fryars to fashion a colder but intimate electro sound to suit the sombre material. But where the production sounds remote, the lyrics are anything but, as Allen takes us on a deep-dive into the recriminations and doubts that surround a recently signed divorce.
In the opener, Come On Then, she takes aim at the British press who wasted no time in publishing their own thoughts on the break-up: "I'm a bad mother, I'm a bad wife. You saw it on the socials, you read it online. If you go on record saying that you know me, Then why am I so lonely?" Allen coos over sedate keyboards.
What You Waiting For? has a deliciously slinky beat and Allen attempts to retain some of her trademark swagger. But it's a false front; she admits with a voice barely above a whisper "I turned a strong man weak. I threw him down, brought him to his knees. I'm hoping somehow he'll forgive me."
Allen is at her lowest point in the heart-wrenching ballad Three, which will surely go down as her best song yet.
She paints a vivid scene in which she says goodbye to her daughter before jetting off on another tour: “Stay here with me, It’s not my fault, I’m only three.” It is a startling line that perfectly captures the confusion and guilt that often goes hand in hand in separated families.
This type of insight allows Allen to stand out among her peers. She eschews insipid generalities to focus on the finer details and thus allows the emotive songs to hit harder.
Not everything in No Shame is po-faced, however. There are a few upbeat numbers to please fans of Allen's earlier sprightly work. The sauntering Trigger Bang, featuring a laid-back verse from grime artist Giggs, has Allen reverting to her trademark tongue in cheek singing-rap style as she battles with the notion of success and stability. It is the former that wins when she declares: "If you cool my ambitions, I will cut you out."
Then there is the sun-kissed dancehall of Your Choice, which is destined to be played at beach festivals. Despite the upbeat moments, it will be Allen's stark brave dissection of her faults that allows No Shame to stand as her most potent work yet.