Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: La Roux – Trouble In Paradise

La Roux, replete with fiery quiff, is a difficult character to forget – the 5 year gap between her debut album…

La Roux, replete with fiery quiff, is a difficult character to forget – the 5 year gap between her debut album and follow-up notwithstanding. But upon first listen of Trouble In Paradise it’s plain to see that Elly Jackson is far removed from the eponymous album released by the synth-pop duo 5 years previously. Not to say that La Roux was anything but a triumph: having won a Grammy, it managed to be reminiscent and pastiche without the banalité, songs like ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘In For Kill’ becoming pop staples of the time. 

Her fate as a piercing pop narrator of love and lust and heartbreak seemed sealed. Yet Jackson has since learned of the tenuous nature of things. With the seemingly acrimonious loss of her musical partner, Ben Langmaid, halfway through (hinted at on ’Silent Partner’) and the ill-omened loss of her soprano voice altogether after a series of panic attacks, the release of La Roux’s sophomore long-player seemed haunted by string of false starts and endless tribulations.   

Trouble In Paradise seems close to the truth of the matter. And yet, La Roux has emerged (now as a solo act) still hopelessly, musically inquisitive and with her ambitions intact and set considerably higher. The entire album has been co-produced by Jackson with help from both Langmaid and Ian Sherwin; and though a self-produced follow-up about 3 years too late should set anyone on edge, it’s hard not to sit back and admire that ‘Fuck it; I’ll do it myself’ attitude. 

And, luckily, she’s delivered. A product of long hours and weeks, Trouble In Paradise’s process managed to be torturous without sounding tortured. And tumult seems to be a fertile starting ground for writing a successful pop album these days if Lykke Li’s I Never Learn is anything to go by. The production and writing is clean and light, with influences spanning Motown soul, Jamaican dancehall groove and progressive house. The album is a triumph in pop music’s endless effort to sound new while remaining both familiar and accessible. It’s a pondering effort that can only be borne from having been in a place where things have not come easily, and it’s La Roux’s best effort yet. In a place where stagnation seemed inevitable, La Roux found progress and one would be hard pressed to hear a better pop album this year.  

From the outset it’s more than clear that La Roux sought to connect and communicate on every level; even if it’s through Jackson’s at times heavy-handed, neon-signed song titles. Album opener, ‘Uptight Downtown’, is no exception. Opening up wide with sleek funk-infused guitar jangling it’s a timely reminder that she’s not lost any of her bite. As her voice confidently drifts in and out of the disco beat the stadium-filling sound is well-matched to her ambitions. It’s in direct contrast with the ostensible cutesy, 8-bit form that ‘Kiss And Not Tell’ takes. The bubblegum melody is reminiscent of the La Roux of La Roux, but as the title suggests, its rather bleak musings on the constricting archetypes of sexuality and identity are not to be missed. ‘All along I’ve had feelings I can’t help, and all I want is to come right out of my shell’, she sing-songs throughout, pointed and direct to drive her point home. 

It’s a stark reminder that no matter how androgyne or angular a figure Jackson cuts, it should not be confused for sterility. Sexuality and all its amorphous forms has become an increasingly stickier topic for female pop stars to approach, yet Trouble In Paradise is far from raunchy. It’s far simpler than that and it’s more tender for it. Even on the ear-perking, ‘Cruel Sexuality’, Jackson’s soprano reaches daunting heights and occupies them for most of the better part of the teasing and cooing song: she sounds dangerously sensuous and somehow bashful all the while. As supple and effortless as Trouble In Paradise can sounds at points, it’s here that one can understand why it took so long to churn out its sounds. So many delicate components had to have been eked out of Elly Jackson’s repertoire and very being to make a pop song – album – that sounds this sleek and glossy and complete. And, just like that, so early into her follow-up her ascendancy would have been complete, but she could not be content with just that. 

Trouble In Paradise‘s aim appears to be to give La Roux’s music an impeachable verity: the creation of something whole and real, and the logic follows that the songs and melodies can then float lithely in and out of its frame. Not so easy an undertaking, but in essence, it allows its nine, relatively short songs to seem infinitely expansive and alluring. ‘Sexotheque’ manages to pivot between being playful and outright sardonic as Jackson flaunts her reclaimed voice. While the reggae swagger of ‘Tropical Chancer’ fleshes out La Roux’s matured perspective and sound; transplanting the same subject into a separate context with both songs being equally and criminally catchy.

Lead single, ‘Let Me Down Gently’, has absorbed the darkest colours of the turmoil that brought La Roux to the place we find her on this album. Her ties with with various influences (the 80’s soft rock thrum is undeniable) show through more clearly than ever, but the ubiquitous synths cannot disguise or diminish her private malaise. And it’s difficult not to feel a connection to Jackson in these simple, universal emotions that have made this album – though airy and self-conscious at times – so thoughtful and assured, and ultimately powerful. There are moments on Trouble In Paradise when the immersion is so complete that the sudden, audacious stretches of silence that appear mid-track and between songs can almost leave one flailing: gasping for air that La Roux made you forget that you even needed. 

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