This late into the age of confessional songwriting, when even the most bubblegum of artists trouble the Top 40 with TMI, it’s rare to find an album that can startle you with its cat-out-of-the-bag bluntness. But you get a whole lot of those “Wait, rewind that” moments in Lily Allen’s “No Shame,” a collection whose promising title only hints at the embarrassment and brazenness within. It’s as raw a record as you’ll hear this year, even if the British singer’s calm tone and heavily programmed production are the picture of pop refinement. Her sweet voice has always been Allen’s not-too-secret ammo, weaponized to take down the fools she didn’t suffer gladly. Hearing her now turn that tart, dulcet dagger of a tongue around on herself makes for a bracing listen.
Probably two-thirds of the tracks have to do with the marital split since her last album, 2013’s “Sheezus,” so you could say that “No Shame” follows in the tradition of many great rock and soul divorce records. Except that, as tough as Marvin Gaye was on his ex in “Here, My Dear,” for instance, that’s how hard Allen is on herself. She starts out on the defensive side with the opening “Come on Then,” her highly quotable rejoinder to tabloid gossip: “Yeah, 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, ’cause nobody f—ing phones me.” From there, rather than paint a more spirited defense, Allen proceeds to write songs that address what she sees as her real setbacks as a spouse and mom. Rest assured that she can still dish it out as well as she takes it, but the level of vulnerability required to write this openly about seeking solace in “sex, alcohol and drugs” in the latter stages of a restless union outweighs even her usual level of brassiness. Which is saying something.
The album is divided roughly into thirds: The opening section sets some of her despair to sprightly rhythmic pop and dancehall. Later on, a few more balladic selections strip away the good cheer to allow things to sound as stark as they are. And then, toward the close, there’s a chipper send-off as a new boyfriend arrives, like a deus ex machina and/or sex machine, and a female-empowerment message ensues. These bends of the arc all have their merits, but the songs you’ll remember most are the more naked numbers in the middle. “Everything to Feel Something” is an exceptionally powerful expression of how self-destructive experiences can substitute for, and fail as, self-medication, with a pretty, downward chord progression that’s spookily apropos.
On the far other end of the world-weary scale, there’s “Three,” written from the point of view of Allen’s young daughter, wondering why Mum would rather tour than watch her grow up. We’ve all heard variations on this rocker-missing-the-kids theme, but Allen seems determined not to sentimentalize the frequent separation or let herself off the hook for it.
You can sense her warring with her own shamelessness at times, not quite sure whether to castigate or celebrate herself for having ended a marriage in which she “turned a strong man weak.” A wiser artist might have held off — to reach a place of more mature perspective before making an album centered on the split — but we benefit from catching Allen in the moment of ambiguity about how she’s handled it all. Her refusal to put a neat bow on things also leaves room for her irreverence and Briticisms, though they’re toned down here. Allen is not about to completely forgo trademark cleverness, any more than she’s about to quit being as consistently tuneful as she is. Yet she’s learned that when there are emotions this bald and frank to convey, she doesn’t need to gild the Lily.
Warner Bros. Records
Producers: Seb Chew & Emre Ramazanoglu, Benjamin Fryars Garrett, Dre Skull, Richard “P2J” Isong, Mark Ronson, Jack Nicols Marcy, Show N Prove, Ezra Koenig, BloodPop, Cass Lowe, Allen