First off, to put this post in context, I want to say that these comments come from having Lily Allen’s ‘Alright Still’ in my CD player almost continuously the past week, and if you’re interested in this kind of music (St. Et, Hilary Duff, girl pop) you should check it out.
Even so, the more I listen to ‘Alright Still’, the more I find it a disappointment. This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to like. Lily Allen has one of the strongest voices of anyone singing this kind of music, and her vocal lines are consistently lovely (’Friend of Mine’ is particularly illustrative of this, a song which is almost entirely laid-back, pretty vocal riffing) The music and production is also top-notch, some of the best on a contemporary girl pop album that I’ve heard.
In addition, there’s a lot to be said for a girl singer whose lyrics actually resemble normal speech. I’m not saying that liberally peppering girl pop with the word ‘fuck’ is the right way to go, but so many girl pop lyrics sound sanitized. There’s a magic to the lyrics of doo wop and the classic girl groups, and a lot of that has to do with how impromptu they sound. Recent groups ape that quality without really getting at it; St. Etienne never sounds casual, and I cast a particularly sharp look in the direction of The Pipettes.
That said, I think there’s a distinction to be made between casual(-sounding) lyrics and lyrics that are lazy. Lily Allen makes too many bad and lazy rhymes, and her lyrics are too full of filler. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the underlying conceits of her songs tend to be weak (’Smile’ being a notable exception).
(As an aside, I’d like to point out that I think that conceptual strength is something that really distinguishes a lot of American girl pop– I’m thinking particularly of Hilary Duff’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and Lindsay Lohan’s ‘Speak’)
The best-written song on ‘Alright Still’, the ballad ‘Littlest Things’, makes use of a rather traditional concept (the pining girl after the relationship’s end), but is the most lyrically fleshed-out song on the album. Lily Allen does an admirable job with the kind of miniature St. Etienne does best. The song does trade off some musical inventiveness for lyrical polish– but hey, I’m a sucker for any song with piano and minimal drum machine.
‘Littlest Things’ also shows another of the album’s problems, a tendency to gild the lily (pun not really intended). The overdubbed vocals detract from the song’s elegant simplicity; I think the demo on her myspace page works much better. But overproduction is a relatively minor flaw.
Lily Allen’s first album reminds me of Schubert’s Lieder: lovely music and beautiful singing, but overtop a lyrically flawed skeleton.