The sardonic British pop princess Lily Allen opened her solo U.S. tour at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Tuesday night. For her comeback from a five year hiatus for marriage and motherhood, Allen’s stage backdrop was dotted with flashing baby bottles. But her return to the terrain she ruled in the mid-2000’s was a little less clear.
Allen made her splash with songs that combined startlingly and often hilariously honest confessionals or needle-sharp social insight, delivered with clever (sometimes brilliant) wordplay, sugary pop melodies, and airy irony. It was the perfect recipe for 20-something women looking for emotional affirmation without the embarrassment of self-pitying pathos. An Allen song like Smile, where she gleefully disdains a philandering ex-boyfriend’s pleas – was sweetest revenge.
But sarcastic disillusionment doesn’t go quite so well with the emotional engagement, and tensions, of a family. Girl child tiny (even in towering heels) and slim, Allen, who started the evening in a sequined “USA” top and moved on to a print mini-dress, a swingy ruffle-bottomed fishnet sort of negligee (she also boasted about wearing nipple covers she bought that day) and then a pair of silver hot pants and rubber bra, was cool to the point of seeming disengaged.
She didn’t directly greet the audience until well into the concert of a little over an hour. “I’ve been away for a while – this is a song about having babies,” she said to introduce Life for Me, from her new album Sheezus. “Or maybe I’m being sarcastic.” The song bemoans the confusion of feeling left out of a frantic social life she’s left behind. “Everyone looks so wasted… I feel so isolated.” The ambivalence may be spot on, but it didn’t feel so accessible to an audience filled with young women who haven’t hit 29 and motherhood yet.
Backed by a bassist, guitarist, drummer and keyboard player (plus four occasional and mostly unnecessary seeming female dancers) Allen’s best numbers combined bubbly pop melody, bouncy rhythm, a lush, shimmery sound and her trademark wit. Given how crucial lyrics are to her impact, it was extremely unfortunate that Allen’s voice was mostly buried in the mix. The unabashedly romantic celebration of her man, L8 CMMR, gets needed punch from double entendres (“he’s going nowhere till this fat lady sings.”) The cool despair of 22, the self-aware and blithely self-absorbed consumerist in The Fear, and the pathetic but chilling online trolls of URL Badman deserve to be heard – otherwise they just seem like pretty pop songs.
Allen rarely went sincere, and when she did, like on the booming club tribute Bass Like Home, she wasn’t convincing. Her glee can be contagious – on F— You, which lambasts anti-gay bigots, the whole audience sang (and gestured) along. Her above-it-all cool may be an integral part of her persona, the kind of glossy attitude that makes her sharpness bearable. But after a whole concert of too cool to care, it makes it a little hard for us to care, too. When she got to Hard Out Here, her take-down of pop music sexism, in the encore, a little oomph and rage might have been nice.