Lily Allen returns with anti-diva pop

'Sheezus'

Lily Allen

(Warner Bros.)

3 stars (out of 4)

On the title track that opens "Sheezus" (Warner Bros.), her third studio album, Lily Allen imagines that after five years away from the music business she's stepping back into the ring for an epic cage match against her would-be rivals: Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Lorde and Lady Gaga all get name-checked. As usual, she's tongue in cheek, comparing her menstrual cycle to the come-and-go stars of the pop treadmill. She demands her pop-diva crown back while punning on Kanye West's 2013 album, "Yeezus."

It's a joke, sort of. Though Allen pays lip service to the idea of fighting her peers for space on the pop charts, her heart's not really in it. Unlike West's caustic, confrontational album, Allen's "Sheezus" isn't a bombastic statement demanding attention. It's more world-weary, with a relatively low-key and slightly dated vibe. Crucially, it has a sense of humor about how it doesn't really fit. Allen has always been more "anti" than "diva," and that's not a bad thing – she's a far more interesting artist because she doesn't play by the same rules as everyone else. It's telling that "Sheezus" falters only when she hews to convention instead of upending it.

The singer was a child of the brief MySpace boom of 2005-06, riding the Internet hub-bub with her mix of deceptively sunny Caribbean-flavored melodies and clever putdowns of the hapless boys who done her wrong. Her take on pop made a virtue of her small but dishy voice and cutting humor, and she became a star. After a 2009 follow-up, she ducked out to get married and have a family.

"Sheezus" reunites her with Greg Kurstin, whose production barely acknowledges that the last five years even happened – an eternity in pop-culture time travel. "L8 CMMR" touches on M.I.A.'s globetrotting electro-rap, "As Long as I Got You" improbably mixes a Bo Diddley beat with New Orleans accordion, "URL Badman" conjures second-hand dubstep rhythms, and "Life for Me" rides an Afro-pop wave.

On about half the album, Allen's focuses on her newfound domesticity, the pop star who finds herself cocooning with the kids while "head to toe in baby food," singing the praises of her husband like a starry-eyed teen ("I couldn't ask for more") and mourning a miscarriage ("Take My Place"). Though "Our Time" celebrates a night out with her girlfriends, it plays like a wistful farewell to a bygone ritual.

On the rest, she turns outward, toward the anti-social discourse on the web ("URL Badman"), the false competition for chart domination ("I think it's dumb and embarrassing," she chirps, as if quoting one of her own Tweets), and the unfair standards applied to female entertainers ("If you're not a size six, then you're not good looking/Well, you better be rich, or be real good at cooking," she declares on "Hard Out Here"). A mellow wine-and-cheese party arrangement underlines the cynicism of "Insincerely Yours" ("I'm here to make money, money, money").

The album lacks the arena punch of big-time pop, and sometimes it flirts with schmaltz. On "Air Balloon," Allen uncharacteristically pushes her voice much higher than it has the ability to go. And the trifling "Close Your Eyes" suggests Allen fishing for a formula single.

"Sheezus" connects because it's more conversational than confrontational, a personal statement that dabbles in pop rather than trying to embody the pop moment. What keeps Allen relevant is not her ability to ride trends, but to defy them.

greg@gregkot.com

CHICAGO

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