At the height of Pulp's fame, Jarvis Cocker channeled all his existential dread about celebrity into a chilling epic called "The Fear." Ten years later, Lily Allen -- the funniest British pop star since Jarvis and perhaps the best -- uses the same title to explore paralyzing fame, but instead of turning inward, Lily deflects, pushing all her anxiety into a Paris Hilton wannabe, a "weapon of massive consumption" that we know isn't Lily herself because this girl "doesn't care about clever." Lily, of course, cares very, very much about clever: it's how she defines herself as an artist and as a persona. Her quips are precise in her lyrics and savage in public, as evidenced when she drunkenly baited her co-presenter Elton John at a British awards show. Such displays tend to obscure her considerable skills as a storyteller, a gift that also gets buried beneath tabloid headlines that place her among pop tarts and princesses. Lily is attracted and repelled by fame, adoring the limelight but neither the company or how it forces personal problems to the forefront, and all these contradictions fuel her second album, It's Not Me, It's You.
Like many a bright pop star before her, Allen is feeling a little bit older than her 23 years, knowing that the landscape of her life is changing, and she's dreading her 30s, which still feel very far away. Lily doesn't state this outright, of course: she puts it into the character sketch of "22," just like how she deals with the blizzard of cocaine and pills on "Everyone's at It," registering her sneering disdain for a social scene she's outgrowing yet not quite ready to leave behind. Far from being a crutch, this narrative distancing is Lily's strength: unlike so many of her too-sensitive peers, she doesn't indiscriminately spill emotions onto the page, she picks her targets, choosing to reveal personal secrets we already know -- tellingly, she never addresses her 2008 miscarriage, but happily serves up her dysfunctional relationships with her parents, something that has provided endless column inches in gossip rags. If there's an element of Lily picking low-hanging fruit here and on "The Fear" and on the George W. Bush kiss-off "F*** You" -- or even "Not Fair," a cousin to "Not Big," where Allen laments a lover who is perfect in every way except his inability to make her scream -- the key to any story is how it's told, and telling is Lily's strength, how she ferrets out bypassed details or delivers a well-worn punchline. It's Not Me pushes this talent to the forefront, in part because she works with only one collaborator here: Greg Kurstin, half of the Bird and the Bee and responsible for several cuts on Alright, Still but not the big hits "Smile" and "LDN," which were produced by Mark Ronson. Without Ronson, Lily isn't quite so glitzy or glammy, she even flirts with adult pop without succumbing to tedium. Kurstin doesn't avoid pop hooks or cheeky camp -- "F*** You" galumphs by on a two-step, "He Wasn't There" is music hall pastiche, and "Never Gonna Happen" gives Lily plenty of room to be coyly disingenuous -- but It's Not Me, It's You streamlines Allen's eccentricities and bad habits, holding together in a way the gloriously messy Alright, Still never quite managed. There's a slight drawback to this cohesion -- It's Not Me never hits heights as blinding as "Smile" or "LDN" -- but this approach does wind up spotlighting just how special a pop star Lily Allen is, how she captures all that's wretched and glorious about her time without falling into any of its traps, probably because she's clever enough to avoid them in the first place.