Occasionally it’s the highs that inspire us to write songs, but even more often it’s the lows, the anxieties, the deep valleys of our journey that produce the deepest emotions. England’s Lily Allen has never shied away from embracing reality and promoting true expression. However, Allen’s honesty in the past has often been pointed toward outward observation rather than deep self-reflection, as she says in this interview. But on 2018’s No Shame, an album three years in the making, the 33-year-old Allen accomplishes that personal revelation and introspection many artists don’t accomplish until their mid-to-late 40s.
Even at 33, Allen has had a lot to reflect on from suffering both a miscarriage and stillbirth to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder to going through a divorce which just finalized this month. Being able to discuss those tragedies with honesty and grace and “no shame” requires incredible strength, especially when other unimportant voices love to chime in with their opinions on celebrities’ personal lives. “I’m a bad mother / I’m a bad wife / You saw it on the socials / You read it online,” begins the pre-chorus of album opener “Come on Then”, as Allen teeters the line between giving into anxiety and being able to reject it.
Things get more personal on “Family Man”, the first song written for the album and a ballad that brings to mind early 2000s jazz and R&B-infused balladry. Allen’s self-deprecating titles of “young and stupid”, “wild and ruthless”, “selfish”, “tired”, and “helpless” are heartbreaking as she pleads “Baby, don’t leave me / I’m just doing what I can / To get by.” “Apples” again recounts the leadup to Allen’s divorce from Sam Cooper over a lone staccato guitar performance as she concludes, “Now I’m exactly where I didn’t want to be / I’m just like mummy and daddy / I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Songs about divorce are hard enough, but Allen really gets the tears rolling on “Three”, written from the perspective of her children whom she feels she has neglected with her busy touring schedule and life in the spotlight. It’s written with a childlike innocence and level of understanding that work to create the best moments on the album, as her children deal with the (in their eyes) hypocrisy of saying “I love you” and then leaving them for long periods of time.
While these sober moments are perhaps the most impactful on the album, Allen connects with her dreamy voice on less heart-wrenching tracks. The sweet vocals and minimalistic, low-key production are never a full-on party on No Shame, but there’s enough infusion of dancehall, reggae, grime, and R&B stylings to let loose. That is, if you’re able to let loose ironically while still reflecting on all the hardships life presents. “Your Choice” featuring Nigerian singer Burna Boy offers the feeling of piña coladas and light waves breaking on the shore with its tropical instrumentation and “Tide Is High”-like melodies. But still Allen can’t help but reflect on her divorce: “If you really wanna go, that’s fine / That’s your choice, not mine.”
Allen closes the album on perhaps its most positive note over light R&B beats and finger snaps as she speaks to herself as much as her audience: “There’s some light / Think you need it / You look so god damn defeated / Why’d you feel so cheated / Best believe it / Have your cake and eat it.” In the midst of constant scrutiny, whether from others or yourself, it’s imperative to remember to “treat yourself“, Allen seems to be saying. And after the difficult task of reflection and therapeutic songwriting she achieved on this album, I’d say the woman deserves her cake.
Lily Allen Takes a Reflective Turn on 'No Shame'