What do you remember about Lily Allen’s 2014 record Sheezus? Maybe you remember the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous rollout of lead single “Hard Out Here”, an early example of internet callout culture (rightfully) criticised for using black women as props. Or the strange, watered down capo-feminism of that song and its follow up, “Sheezus”. If you went to a festival around the time, you might recall seeing Allen on-stage, performing in front of a row of twerking dancers in glittering bodysuits and American Apparel disco pants.
Most of all, you probably remember feeling a little cold, a little disappointed: Allen – a smart and savage satirist who once said the key to dealing with fame was to not take yourself too seriously – sounded like she was taking herself very, very seriously. At some point, the snarky jabs at ex-boyfriends and annoying brothers became name-calling and virtue signalling, and her bullish charm had gotten lost along the way.
Allen will be the first to admit that not everything was quite right during that period of her life. “I got lost in ego and nonsense,” she recalls now, four years on. “I went into the last record looking for commercial success, magazine covers, branding partnerships. All the things that you definitely should not be looking for if you're an artist.”
While that album cycle may have left her fans a little miffed, it left Allen broken. After the release of her sophomore album It’s Not Me, It’s You, Allen took some time off from music to focus on her family, giving birth to two daughters in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Shortly afterward, she decided to jump back into music, but found herself going through the motions, no longer animated by the same reckless and brilliant spirit that had brought her first two records to life.
“I think I was suffering of postnatal depression,” she says, describing this period of her life as an “identity crisis”. “I started listening to everyone around me, which I hadn't done before, about the way that I looked and what clothes I was wearing, and about the live show and sound of the music.” If Allen’s music circa-2014 didn’t sound like herself, it’s because it didn’t feel like herself either.
A few days before we were set to meet, Allen’s press engagements were moved to Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel, a dimly lit, lavishly decorated spot in the East Village that’s known for the hordes of paparazzi around the entrance at any given moment. Not, in other words, a particularly covert location. “If she’s moving to the Bowery,” a friend explained, “it means she’s ready to be seen again.”
No Shame, Allen’s new album and first since Sheezus, would certainly testify to that. The furthest she’s strayed from the lewd, jokey style of her early records, the album is a knife-sharp document of the years after Sheezus, a period of deep depression and isolation that coincided with the dissolution of Allen’s marriage. Terrifyingly and breathtakingly sad, No Shame takes the candour Allen once used to describe world leaders and premature ejaculation and applies it to her own life. It feels like the first time we’re really, truly seeing Allen as a human, rather than just the larger-than-life tabloid figure she was once made out to be.
It’s easy to forget that Allen was one of the first female pop stars to really do it. It’s hard to see Dua Lipa singing “boy, I don’t give a fuck” on commercial radio or Tove Lo releasing a record called Lady Wood, or any number of Charli XCXs and Zara Larssons doing what they do without Allen before them telling George W. Bush to go fuck himself and singing about “the wet patch in the middle of the bed”. Allen forced a genre that likes its women to look, sound, and act like clones to acknowledge that other kinds of stars could exist, and be popular, and excel within environments where they accentuated and owned their flaws. It’s important to note that Allen is the rich, white daughter of a record label executive; the fact remains, though, that her rough-around-the-edges charm, a trait we take very much for granted in today’s pop stars, was seen as something shocking a decade ago.
Sitting with me in the hotel’s loud, darkened lobby, the singer seems relaxed, clad in plain sweats with her bright pink hair tied up, a mostly-eaten bowl of muesli sitting on the table between us. Wearing lounge attire in what is (for me, a plebeian, at least) a fairly upscale hotel, it does seem like Allen has no shame. But that’s not really what the album title refers to. No Shame, as a title, is Allen’s way of telling her detractors – she describes them as ”people who are like, ‘God, what an awful woman to have behaved in this way when she's a mother and a wife,’” – that the contents of her writing can only be deemed shameful or embarrassing if she decides it is.
And while No Shame is a lot of things for Allen – an emotional bloodletting, an artistic boon, a record she’s really, genuinely proud of – it certainly isn’t an embarrassment. Over the record’s fourteen tracks, Allen sketches, in vague but heartbreaking terms, the schematics of her life as it’s been over the past couple of years: a faulty marriage, tinted by jealousy; a career that was causing anxiety and addiction; children forced to understand why their mother was constantly absent. It is an emotionally heavy record. But while Allen is done writing about goofy exploits and hard partying, her hooks are as sharp as they’ve ever been, and in many cases have benefitted from her newfound lyrical clarity. Once an overwhelmingly verbose songwriter, Allen is now saying things in the plainest terms, to shattering effect. “What You Waiting For”, one of the album’s strongest tracks, hinges on a pre-chorus that is both festival-ready and tear-inducing: “I turned a strong man weak/ I threw him down, brought him to his knees/ I’m hoping somehow he’ll forgive me/ I think to myself”. On the similarly catchy “Lost My Mind”, Allen distills her troubles to a handful of words, rather than the usual fifty; the chorus of “I’m stuck in a rut, kicking stones/ Looking at my phone all night/ Maybe I’ve lost my mind” is far stickier and more emotionally resonant than much of Allen’s catalogue to date.
That “looking at my phone” line is one of a few moments on the record where Allen alludes to an obsession with social media that started to develop as the rest of her life crumbled. “When my marriage broke down, so did a lot of my other relationships and my friendships,” she says. “I was really disconnected and I shut down, stopped talking to everybody, and my family, too. I’d find my connection to the outside world through my phone.”
Allen, as is all too common, got stuck in a cycle of comparing her life to others on social media. A wunderkind who was one of the first artists to really leverage social media fame into genuine success, it was easy for Allen to see young, successful Instagram stars and feel despair at her own perceived failures. “The more isolated that I became, the less actual socialising I was doing,” she admits. “I was married, with a lurking habit. It was definitely damaging.”
She’d like to use social media less, of course, but it’s part of the job. In an ideal world, someone would be paid to do it; currently, that’s not really an option. At this point, though, she’s struck something of a happy medium, or as close to it as she can be. “I don’t follow anyone on Instagram now, because that’s when I get caught up in it,” she says. “Some people would say, "Oh how arrogant," but it's not that I'm arrogant, it's just that I literally have ADHD, so if I get distracted by something I can be there for hours.”
Though Instagram has caused struggles, Allen has found Twitter as a place where she thrives. Often using the site as a platform to discuss politics – Allen is a strong supporter of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, and was a strong advocate for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire last year – she’s found that Twitter is a place where her voice can be heard, rather than manipulated or muted, as in the tabloids.
The ultra-minimal return to Instagram is one of a few safeguards Allen put in place around the creation of No Shame designed to stop her falling into the hole of “alcohol, and drugs, and sex, and quite self destructive stuff” that she used to cope with work previously. One of the most significant changes was that Allen had her own studio in London where she could work privately, free from the outside voices that were so destructive last time around. Rather than just write toplines for each track, as she had done on previous records, the new space allowed Allen to experiment with new sounds and live with them for long periods of time before deciding whether they were good enough to be on the record. “I wasn't really trying to do anything other than make an album that felt like my kind of authentic self,” she says, “and so I just kind of took control for the first time.”
And No Shame really does feel like Allen’s authentic self, at this moment in time at least. Her full-time job may be “being a good mother, first and foremost”, but Allen is still a witty commentator and a sharp lyricist. Her songs might not be as quirky or as downright funny anymore, but in hindsight, that might not have ever really been the ‘real’ Allen. “That side of me always felt like a bit of bravado, on the last record especially, and a bit of a mask,” she says. “The mask slipped.” What a relief.
Lily Allen's new album No Shame is out now.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian editor. Find him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.