By Adam Depollo, Online Arts Editor
Published July 23, 2014
It’s been five years since English synthpop duo La Roux — then composed of singer/multi-instrumentalist Elly Jackson and producer Ben Langmaid — released its eponymous debut album, which featured the massively successful singles “Bulletproof” and “In for the Kill.” The years since 2009 have presented a number of obstacles for Jackson, including a debilitating bout of performance anxiety, but, after parting ways with Langmaid over creative differences, La Roux has returned as a solo act with its infectious sophomore release Trouble in Paradise.
Trouble in Paradise
On 2009’s La Roux, Jackson and Langmaid successfully blended ‘80s chic with elements of the late ‘00s club sound on the album’s radio-ready singles, but the LP’s deeper cuts were something of a disappointment. While the distillation of punchy square synths and 808 percussion worked on “Bulletproof,” it left the rest of the album feeling sparse and incomplete, as though it were begging for a remix that La Roux wasn’t quite ready to provide.
Fortunately, the creative split between the duo’s members seems to have opened the way for Jackson to pursue her ‘80s throwback aesthetic to its potently danceable and upbeat conclusions on her latest release. Opening with “Uptight Downtown,” Jackson delivers a string of well-crafted melodies and contagious choruses over buoyant analog synths on the album’s more club-ready tracks and lush piano riffs and vocal harmonies on ballads like “Paradise Is You.” Jackson’s ear for melody is particularly strong on the chorus of “Cruel Sexuality,” a dance track with traces of Graceland-era Paul Simon,” and on the mildly tropical synth lines of “Sexotheque.”
Trouble in Paradise’s production, provided largely by Englishman Ian Sherwin, is just as impressive as the album’s songwriting. The warm lo-fi halo floating over Jackson’s voice adds an inviting color to the LP while providing a touch of nostalgic ‘80s fuzz to the whole project — a number of the tracks, particularly “Cruel Sexuality” and “Silent Partner” with their driving analog bass lines and echoing vocals, sound like they were recorded inside of a David Bowie music video. You can almost see the fog machines and angular shoulder pads sticking out through the mix.
This album’s biggest stumbling block, however, is Jackson’s lyrics, which, while exploring the rocky aspects of relationships implied by the record’s title, don’t offer much in the way of innovation or even particularly creative imagery. Even on the most interesting lyrical track “Paradise Is You,” Jackson is dealing with ideas, like losing yourself in your lover, that we’ve all heard before.
And, while I could overlook Jackson’s lyrics if she ended the album on a strong note with the catchy single and second-to-last song “Let Me Down Gently,” she unfortunately closes out the LP with its most disappointing track “The Feeling.” In comparison with the finely wrought ‘80s aesthetics on the rest of the album, this cut’s badly mixed bass lines and drums are an unexpected turn. The lackluster production blends poorly with Jackson’s weak falsetto and clumsy vocal harmonies, making this track seem like a half-finished demo that was mistakenly tacked onto the album’s final cut.
With the exception of the album’s weak finish, however, Trouble in Paradise is a solid follow-up to La Roux’s debut album that, while lacking any obvious hits along the lines of “Bulletproof,” is a much more satisfying release. Few of the LP’s first eight tracks feel incomplete in the way that much of La Roux did, and Jackson has clearly come into her own as a songwriter, crafting refreshingly nostalgic pop tracks that still sound like they were made in 2014.