This is the tale of two very different pop songs called "22." The first, from 2012, is written and performed by one Taylor Swift, America's polarizing sweetheart, taking a break from mocking her ex-boyfriends' social inadequacies to indulge in a giddy, vaguely EDM-scented Girls Night Out pajama jam that nods to the pressures of that particular age—"Yeahhhh / We're happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time / It's miserable and magical"—but otherwise comes on like a pillow fight at a slumber party. Pretty good song! Let Taylor live. Here's the other one.
Lily Allen's own "22," released in 2009, finds Britain's polarizing sweetheart taking a break from mocking her ex-boyfriends' sexual inadequacies to describe young adulthood as a mere perch from which to gaze into the miserable, not-at-all-magical abyss of slightly older adulthood. "When she was 22 / The future looked bright / She's nearly 30 now and she's out every night," it begins; the chorus—the chorus—kicks off with, "It's sad but it's true, how society says her life is already over." Pretty good song, also! But it comes on like a death sentence, a vexing pre-emptive howl of pain from an overly self-aware pop star fixated to the point of paralysis on her own shelf life. Taylor sees 22 as The Beginning; Lily's convinced it's the beginning of The End.
Lily Allen's nearly 30 now, and society is ... confused. She debuted in 2006 (discovered on MySpace!) with the daintily venomous reggae jams of Alright, Still, maturing ever so slightly on 2009's heavier, weirder It's Not Me, It's You: That one has a song about George W. Bush called "Fuck You," pairing nicely with premature-ejaculation-decrying spaghetti-Western jam "Not Fair," which five years on still retains its aura of fearsome derangement. ("It makes me feel weird," is one semi-admiring Deadspin cohort's wary assessment.)
Since then, silence, aside from the usual status updates (married; two kids) and tabloid nonsense (she Twitter-feuded with Azealia Banks, which is like saying, "At one point, she breathed air.") But the comeback is on: Her third album, out this week (stream it here), is called Sheezus. And immediately you see the problem.
One of the problems. This video, for lead single "Hard Out Here," essentially rage-broke the Internet upon release in November, its tart denunciation of music-industry sexism (it opens with label-jerk-mandated liposuction) swallowed up by seethingly Tumblr'd cries of racism. See if you can guess why! (White pop stars cavorting uncomfortably with ass-slapping black backup dancers has somehow become A Thing. Miley Cyrus mainstreamed it; Sky Ferreira is your current innovator.) The polite way to put it is that Allen can still start a conversation, but is now less adept at controlling what that conversation is about. The impolite way to put it is that her singular talent for provocation has calcified into a full-on embrace of trollgaze, in adroit pop critic Maura Johnston's useful phrase. Or, in Miley's own useful phrase, she's going the "strategic hot mess" route. Either way, geez.
Verily, the rest of the Sheezus rollout has been rough. The fizzy, vapid "Air Balloon" is pretty lousy; the title track has a breathy, swirly elegance, but it also nervously name-drops Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Lorde in the chorus. Second-verse highlight: "Periods / We all get periods."
So! Given all that, it's almost disappointing that the full album isn't worse. Produced by longtime cohort Greg Kurstin (now doing better synth-pop work elsewhere, particularly on Tegan and Sara's transcendent Heartthrob), it's lithe and cheery and refreshingly sweet, buoyed by Allen's pristine, playful diction and spiked with not-unpleasant bursts of zydeco and Afropop; the songs not about her public image tend to be about her husband, who in a stunning reversal of fortune is apparently adept at both love-making and child-rearing, which, great. As hot-marriage jams go, ain't nothin' here gonna touch "Drunk in Love," but what can?
Problem is, if you scan the track list ahead of time, you spend the record's first half wincing in anticipation of "URL Badman," which doth indeed opens with a mom's-basement joke, rhymes "Wordpress" with "worthless," sneers at everyone from Pitchfork to Vice, and basically gives the Internet as a whole the Buzz Bissinger treatment. Goat noises on the fadeout, for whatever reason. It's right, but it's not OK. After that comes "Silver Spoon," which rips off Maroon 5 and angrily defends Allen's quasi-posh upbringing, which is presumably a U.K. tabloid thing, and the hell with it. "Hard Out Here"—better than the video implies, despite a chorus of "It's hard out here for a bitch"—is your closer, unless you count the plaintive solo-piano cover of Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know," which don't.
Here's a fun fact: As world-weary and Internet-savvy as you imagine yourself, as cognizant of the slime of anonymous-commenter misogyny and misanthropy as you may be, know in your heart that you will never even half-comprehend the awe-inspiring perpetual tsunami of leering toxic shit that greets any female person who makes music and deigns to wander online, ever. It is unimaginable; I say this as someone who has tried, and failed, to imagine it. A "known unknown," in the parlance. That may be mansplaining (also in the parlance), but it's true, and no one makes music more hellbent on actively rubbing your face in it than Lily Allen. Her best songs transcend it; Sheezus, though not quite disastrous, too often gets mired in it. Be careful when you fight the trolls, lest you become one. Taylor Swift said that, more or less.