Lily Allen
"Alright, Still"

(Capitol Records 2007)Lily Allen - Alright, Still

 

Whether the medium is film, music, literature or art, the lives of the British working class are almost always portrayed in a bleak, hopeless manner. A quintessential example is Billy Elliot, a BBC Films picture from 2000 about a boy growing up in Northern England in the 1970s who aspires to become a ballet dancer. His parents, friends, teachers and virtually everyone else on God's green earth tell him what an absurd aspiration that is for a boy from a working class family. The father, who is totally consumed with mere survival, is particularly appalled by his son's unrealistic ambition. Yet Billy grows up to be a successful dancer, beating what appeared to be impossible odds.

 

Streetwise beyond her years at 21, Lily Allen seems to know these struggles all too well, and like Billy Elliot, she has beaten the long odds. Alright, Still, her debut album, relates the sordid squalor of London street life with exacting detail, leaving out none of the unfaithful lovers, bad pick-up lines, blundering family members, crime, filth, drugs, and violence. But as dancing was Billy's exuberant escape from the doldrums, Lily's are words and melody. She and her team of co-writers have penned a collection of songs that affirm and exude life while simultaneously confronting what a downer it can be.

 

The best place to get a sense of this dynamic is not so much with "Smile," the ultra-catchy, instant mean girls anthem that opens the disc, but on tracks three and four, "LDN" and "Everything's Just Wonderful." "LDN" goes beyond the surface appearance of London, where "everything seems nice." The song's bright, infectious chorus that intones, "Sun is in the sky oh why oh why/Would I want to be anywhere else," makes everything seem downright sublime. But the verses -- where Lily talks about pimps, crack whores and robbers -- speak of the London that many never see. To Lily, it's very simple: "If you look twice/You can see it's all lies."

 

A similar dichotomy is at work on "Everything's Just Wonderful," which continues the album's brilliant production and eclecticism by mashing up rapped verses with a 1960s-loungesque chorus. "Everything" expands its scope from London to, well, everything, taking on bureaucrats, modern marketing, guilt, and everything else that spoils the party that life could be. Through it all, Lily repeats "Oh yeah, I'm fine/Everything's just wonderful/I'm having the time of my life." There is heavy irony in the statement, but the melody tells us there is some sincerity to it as well.

 

Very few records span as many genres and moods as Alright, Still with such positive results. Ska, reggae, hip hop and dance music form the album's core. When you mix these elements in just the right manner, they sound fabulous as contemporary pop. As for moods, after a barrage of vengeance and violence on "Not Big," "Friday Night," and "Shame For You," we are disarmed by the uncomplicated sadness of "Littlest Things," which contains a classic pop chorus that begins "Dreams, dreams/Of when we had just started things." Though "Not Big" strikes a lone callous note by disclosing the complete inadequacy of a former lover for no apparent reason (you can guess which part of him is "not big"), there is usually love or a sense of justice underneath Allen's hard exterior. On "Alfie," when Lily admonishes her pothead little brother to "get off his lazy arse," she can't help but humiliate him a little in the process, but mainly she's concerned that he's going to waste his life away.

 

Much of this record's success is due to a team effort. Allen has co-writers on all 12 of the album's tracks, and the production, arrangements and musicianship are all top-notch. With the exception of three or four near misses, this sounds like a full album of could-be singles. Lily has clearly surrounded herself with some very talented people, but it's hard to imagine this record being so good from start to finish if she didn't have a very strong sense of who she is as a person and as an artist. Fully aware of the despair occurring within and around her, Lily Allen has taken all that badness and given us something very beautiful.

A-

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