The gig to launch Lily Allen's third album, Sheezus – a breezy pop screed about modern-day pop manners, domestic love and internet trolling – takes place in west London, in a theatre two-thirds full of excited fans and one-third full of guest-listed friends and family. Home turf, in other words; a place where Allen is, perhaps, best revealed.
At one point she waves to her mother-in-law and ticks her husband off for not paying attention. If Allen's detractors are frequently galled by the singer's entitled background (there's a Sheezus song about that, too) and her manner (reformed party girl lecturing on modern ills), witnessing the full package in deepest W12 would outstrip the ability of mere CAPSLOCK to render their righteous indignation. Allen's London comeback feels rather like being at a do in Allen's front room – only with a white stage, a four-piece band and livelier visuals on the wall. These are deeply kitsch, but refreshing. Few female pop stars launch their latest opus with footage in which a cartoon baby bottle is filled, then spurts milk in double vision. Fifties housewives with corgi heads scroll round during Hard Out Here; domesticity is a theme throughout.
They have a point though, those haters. Allen is the sort of performer who totters around in a succession of outfits (gold lamé jumpsuit, flouncy LDN-referencing eveningwear, pink taffeta top), not really performing, more joshing her way through a facsimile of pop stardom. She debates the wisdom of wearing a giant faux-jewel fascinator with the crowd ("My stylist made me wear it!") before junking it. Occasionally she'll miss some of the lyrics, but recovers well. There's a screen at the foot of the stage that might be of some help.
To many, though, this casualness is key to Allen's appeal and her chutzpah is in full flow tonight. She presents as an unstuffy, non-Amazonian twentysomething-about-town who loves pop but has sufficient perspective to question pretty much everything about it. Double standards on drug taking? Bad female DJs? The internet era's corrosive feeling of missing out? You name it, Allen will sing a witty song about it – oldie Everyone's at It, newbies Insincerely Yours, and Life for Me, which recalls, then segues into, the Caribbean lilt of LDN. Tonight's set boasts old tunes about premature ejaculation (It's Not Fair) and soppy new songs about her husband's staying power (L8 CMMER); Sheezus, the wide-ranging title rap, dwells at some length on PMT.
She won't dance for you, though. The professionals come on stage for songs such as Hard Out Here and a couple of others. Significantly, they range widely in skin tone tonight. The now infamous Hard Out Here lampoons double standards in pop. On release back in November, the video made generous use of winding and grinding dancers, all of whom were of a different ethnicity to Allen. The singer was widely criticised for indulging in the very practices (sexualisation, objectification, casual racism) that her songs were supposedly lampooning. Her rebuttal was categorical.
More recently, Allen performed at GAY – a London gay club night famed for its pop-star sets – and sent up Beyoncé. Commentators such as the Roots's Questlove were not amused; Allen waded in to point out that she "did" Britney Spears last time. Time and again, Allen's camp insists that she is frequently, purposely, misunderstood; that she is raising important issues, however clumsily. Her detractors continue to believe Allen is a disingenuous pop controversialist, just ticking off taboos to bust, in the grander scheme of her own self-aggrandisement.
Tonight's gig doesn't really settle the argument either way. It's neither great enough to silence the critics nor craven enough to prove their points. When Allen finally plays LDN, her lilting 2006 hit, it seems like ancient history from simpler times, before "dancer-gate", before the poisonous Azealia Banks Twitter feud of 2013 (that involved a picture of a penis in blackface). As far as the actual music goes, Allen's new tunes are often immensely catchy. Air Balloon may be purposely thin and synthetic, but it is seriously nagging. Tonight's standout new song, URL Badman, skewers the online bullies so fabulously you want to punch the air.
Ultimately, Allen's greatest weakness is that, by and large, her pop is about pop; meta-machine music rather than anything more organic. The album's title references Kanye West's Yeezus; names of other singers (Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Lorde) litter the title track's lyrics. And however heartfelt her love songs, and however trenchant her observations, Allen is probably less a singer and more a polemical symbiont; a satirist with an ear for melody.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010