Lily Allen, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London – review

Like its counterpart “dad-rock”, “mum-pop” is a derogatory term for the sort of music mothers are supposed to enjoy – harmless slushy stuff, melodic pablum you can hum along to while scrubbing ketchup off a protesting three-year-old. But what if the insult were turned on its head? What if there were pop songs about motherhood – and not just in the schmaltzy sense of Alicia Keys getting her toddler to say “Mommy, I love you” on her last album?

Enter Lily Allen at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, playing her first headline show in four years. She was preceded by a short film showing a bottle of milk being prepared for a baby. The singer, 28, retired from music in 2009, since when she has got married and had two children. But now she’s back with new album Sheezus having got “bored” spending all day looking after the kids. True motherhood isn’t all “Mommy, I love you”.

The comeback got off to an awkward start with Sheezus’s title track – on record a superb southern-rap-flavoured account of women in pop music, but marred tonight by hiccoughing vocals and thudding music from the four-piece backing band. For all the confidence of Allen’s public persona – the gobby Londoner telling it how it is, provoking Twitter feuds and tabloid controversy – she has always been an uncertain live performer.

At the Empire she mooched around the stage with the microphone, vocals not as sweetly sing-song as in the studio, seemingly more comfortable bantering with the audience – telling her actor father Keith Allen to stand up and dance, for instance – than delivering the songs. New tracks slotted in neatly enough among older material. They combined breezy musical pastiche with bold lyrics, like her mentioning menstruation in “Sheezus” (the stage suddenly lit up in red) or the frustrations of parenting cited in “Life For Me”: flowing Afro-pop gave the message a deceptively easy charm.

Backing dancers joined her to twerk away on “Hard Out Here”, a Calvin Harris dance-pop lampoon tackling music industry sexism. But the show was low-key, only really coming to life in the latter stages. “The Fear”, an old song about the limits of fame (“Life’s about film stars and less about mothers”), sparked the change. Hook-laden new song “Air Balloon” kept the atmosphere going, building to a big sing-along climax with “Not Fair” – a song about premature ejaculation. You can’t fault Allen’s ability to turn difficult subjects into entertainment; if only some of that boldness could rub off on her live act.

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