There are divorce albums, and then there are Divorce Albums. Lily Allen’s upcoming record, “No Shame,” belongs to the latter, more emphatically capitalized category of post-split confessional songwriting. A teaser show Wednesday night at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre was designed primarily as a showcase to preview 12 of the 14 tracks from the impending June 8 release, which implicitly made it, yes, a divorce show — a subject she didn’t shy away from in any of her introductory comments. For anyone who’s a fan of Allen and/or diaristic pop, it was pretty riveting stuff.
But how would these sometimes sobering songs befit a pop songstress who’s often been better than just about anybody at combining brainy and acrid with the happy-go-lucky end of brazenness? Suffice it to say that there remained a good amount of smiling and even giggling, although it wasn’t always clear whether that was out of nerviness or nervousness. “Be sad, Lily, be sad,” she admonished herself at one point, catching herself chuckling in the midst of describing a failed marriage and alcoholic benders.
The L.A. gig, which obviously could have been held in a significantly larger venue, was one of just two stateside appearances on the docket, following a show in an even smaller club two nights prior in New York. When she returns to the road in earnest, presumably it won’t be just the halls that are larger but the number of oldies in the set; only five made it in on this modest promotional tour (none of them from her previous album, 2014’s “Sheezus,” a rare misfire). She admitted that confronting a crowd with a dozen new songs might not be every performer’s idea of smart. But it paid off at the El Rey, in large part because there’s a touch of minimalism to her heavily programmed new material, which was rendered fairly faithfully on stage by her two producers, who triggered pads and lightly strummed the occasional rhythm guitars but didn’t get in the way of the audience making out her true digressions.
Punches were not pulled. “Come On Then,” the track that opens the forthcoming album, managed to be a little defensive in recognizing her visibility — “Yeah, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad wife / You saw it on the socials, you read it online” — but the rest of the material avoids getting meta about her public position and just gets down to personal brass tacks. Sometimes she’s combative and accusatory, but more often, surprisingly, taking blame or wondering if she just doesn’t have domesticity in her: “It’s not always easy being a family man,” she sang — presumably being the man of the title. Despite the gender switch between songs, she described a sort of long, lost weekend she had in L.A. while her family remained in London — a situation she went on to lyrically describe: “I’ve come to the land of the free / I’ve let loose, I’m faithless / I am lost and shameless / Don’t go forgetting me / I don’t like most people / But I’m scared, not evil.” If Allen’s previously more mirth-riddled albums would lead you to wait for a punchline here, it wasn’t coming.
In the most vulnerable song, “Three,” she sang from the point of view of one of her young children, feeling neglected while mum is on tour or otherwise unavailable. It felt heart-wrenchingly self-critical for one of pop’s queens of cockiness… and you wondered if she really means the title of the “No Shame” album. But the shamelessness returned in other numbers, as did the dancehall underpinnings of some of her music. With “My One” and “Pushing Up Daisies,” she moved on to the subject of her new boyfriend, who inspires not just creativity but procreativity: “Lately, I’ve been thinking about maybe / Having one of your babies.” A family woman after all?
Her most inspirational new anthem, “Cake,” “is a girl song,” she announced, “so guys, you should just turn around and go to the back of the room for the next few minutes. I’m serious.” The empowerment theme was well intended, even if she’d just spent most of the rest of the set seeming to counter the notion that it’s possible to have one’s cake and eat it too.
There were no mixed messages to speak of by the time she “rewarded” the crowd for its patience with more oldies at the close, including “F— You,” a song originally inspired by George W. Bush: “And I thought that he was bad news. But this guy that you’ve got now is something else. Contrary to what Kanye West believes…” But, she quickly added, “I love Kanye. I’m wearing his trainers,” before urging the crowd, repeatedly, to put their fingers in the air for the current president. She found plenty of takers.
The set ended with a song from her 2003 debut album that she reinforced is about premature ejaculation, “Not Fair,” which, with its Wild West style, made sense as the most (ironically) rousing closer possible. After some of the more emotionally harrowing new material, thinking back to the days when a guy finishing first was her worst lyrical problem felt kind of quaintly nostalgic.