Lily Allen review – hard words in tuneful velvet gloves

Singer showcases Sheezus, a sparkling and vibrant affair Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Five years ago, Lily Allen retreated to the Cotswolds to get married and to start a family, and proclaimed that she was retiring from music. Virtually nobody believed her. The reliably provocative star simply had too many ideas and too much vitality for anyone genuinely to imagine that, after two multi-platinum albums, we had seen the last of her by the age of 23.

Allen's blessed ability to generate controversy has not deserted her. Over the past few weeks, she has fielded some bizarre allegations of racism after critics wilfully misinterpreted the video to single Hard Out Here, she claimed that one of her tracks was not receiving radio play because it refers to menstruation and she agreed with a tweeting fan that some of her comeback material was "docile pop rubbish".

Luckily, this last description could not be more misguided. Sheezus, the new album that has triggered all of this lively debate, is a sparkling and vibrant affair, and finds Allen once again delivering candid personal confessionals and caustic social commentary over endearingly breezy electropop and characteristically barbed R&B.

Launching the album on Monday night, she opened with the title track, a song that namechecks a host of female pop stars while expressing apprehension at the likely media reaction to her own return. Hard Out Here, her skewering of the music industry's perennial entrenched sexism, saw her joined by a posse of female backing dancers in micro-shorts whose lascivious twerking hammered the song's message home.

Allen has been voluble lately on the joys of motherhood and domesticity as compared with her former hard-partying lifestyle, and the country-tinged As Long As I Got You found her praising husband Sam Cooper in idiosyncratic style: "Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose." The hiccuping L8 CMMR, possibly to his mortification, lauded his sexual prowess, yet her love for him did not stop her from mock-berating him in the crowd for not paying enough attention to the show: "Oi! It's my first big gig for ages!"

Allen's material is invariably fiercely topical and the serrated new track URL Badman parodied the internet trolls and keyboard warriors who populate what she calls "the bottom half of the internet". Yet her observations are not all so vehemently sarcastic: recent single Our Time was a sweet evocation of female companionship and the joys of living for the weekend.

Her primary talent has always been for couching hard words in the most tuneful of velvet gloves, and even her old paean to George W Bush, Fuck You, sounded like a honeyed nursery rhyme as the Empire bellowed along. Yet the quintessential flippancy of Allen's approach should not conceal the fact that her views are frequently heartfelt.

The bubblegum recent single Air Balloon sounded disappointingly slight and inconsequential but the galloping finale Not Fair remains one of the most enjoyable and compelling songs ever written about male premature ejaculation. Allen was never remotely going to stay away for as long as she threatened, but it is very good to have her back.

Powered by article was written by Ian Gittins, for The Guardian on Monday 28th April 2014 23.23 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010