In 2018, you’d be forgiven for asking “La Whoux?”
The eighties revivalist joy of La Roux entered the scene in 2009 in a cold cloud of hairspray shot through with neon, and it was instantly apparent that they were unlike anything else. Their debut album was all style and sharpness, an edgy electro-pop bop that ended up winning the then-duo a Grammy, with the ambiguous and defiant “Bulletproof” blasting into the charts in a digital rush. After the sensation caused by “Bulletproof”, still their biggest hit to date, the now one-person La Roux released a second album five years later to critical acclaim but minimal commercial attention due to little promotion. No one could have known the tropical storm they had to weather to get to that point. No one could have known that the message of their strength-in-the-face-of-obstacles anthem would be so inseparable from La Roux’s life and career.
After the delayed US attention extended the debut’s promo cycle well into 2011, two whole years after La Roux, things went sideways. Singer and instrumentalist Elly Jackson lost her voice due to performance anxiety and had to fight her way back, while the warmer 70s influences she was pursuing in the sessions for their second album caused a split from her writing and production partner Ben Langmaid, the unseen half of La Roux until that point. In 2012, when Jackson did an interview with Q Magazine, she mentioned a lot of the song titles that would end up on sophomore effort Trouble in Paradise, but that year saw nothing released. In a couple of seeming warm-up gigs at the start of 2013 she finally debuted some new songs, promptly going into hiding again. Another year and still nothing. It wasn’t until July 2014 that Trouble in Paradise was actually released, after a prolonged period of turmoil. If the title suggested anything from the start it was that the ever-vocal Jackson, her style and hair now looser and more relaxed to match her new sound, was oh so ready to tell us all about it.
“All that time fussing over the details and putting extreme effort into sounding effortless paid off dividends”
First of all, the album sounds amazing. All that time fussing over the details and putting extreme effort into sounding effortless paid off dividends; the sound was looser, warmer, natural and fun but measured, never too much of any one ingredient. This is apparent from the reverb-laden drums and low-slung bass of driving opener “Uptight Downtown”, written about the 2011 London riots. “The streets are lined with people / With nothing left to lose” Jackson sings in a lower register than the emotionally-bruised fembot persona of the debut, until the chorus kicks in and the falsetto makes its majestic return; it just works flawlessly, from the lush “Let’s Dance” synths and Nile Rodgers chucking guitar to the blood-raising breakdown of “oh, but the temperature’s rising tonight”.
“Kiss and Not Tell”, the introvert’s guide to late-night solicitations, is airy and endlessly fun, while “Paradise is You” is a slightly cheesy but gorgeous ballad that builds to an epic swirl of pining and melancholy desire. Song titles like “Tropical Chancer” and “Sexotheque” are unintentionally hilarious, but it’s Jackson’s idiosyncrasies — her voice, artistic choices, Bowie-and-Swinton look — that makes La Roux an enthralling persona. The hooks are undeniable; “Sexotheque”’s refrain of “all that money money money I bet” is glorious, while “Tropical Chancer” is an impossibly sexy, mechanically warm character piece about a mercurial lover.
“Trouble in Paradise evokes the feeling of cognitive dissonance when you’re in a place where you feel like you should really be happy but you’re just not”
With its gorgeously sunny sonic backdrop and comparatively angsty lyrics, Trouble in Paradise evokes the feeling of cognitive dissonance when you’re in a place where you feel like you should really be happy but you’re just not. “Cruel Sexuality” is an impossible airy funk-pop gem that bops along breezily until it dives into the dreamy bridge where Jackson pleads, over and over, “oh, you keep me happy in my everyday life / Why must you keep in a prison at night?”. The album’s closer, “The Feeling” is entirely self-produced and most resembles the sharp sound of the first album except it’s looser, rooted in a warm desire. At the end of the song she sings, almost to herself, “On the outside I might be strong / But really, inside, I’m just a loner / I don’t believe we ever really grow up / I’m still a child whenever you show up”. It’s a beautifully rendered evocation of the conflict of young feelings, wrapped in cooing synth-vocals and a springy beat, elements that play with the glow of nostalgia to exacerbate the very modern yet timeless anxieties of the lyrics.
“Silent Partner” is maybe the darkest example of what Jackson was trying to achieve; it takes the kind of chugging synth bass from Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” and twists it into a relentless seven-minute descent into the deepest pits of anxiety, the beat driving and punishing, a pulse-pounding backdrop to Jackson’s in turns defiant and terrified addresses to something evil pushing her under. That “wah-wah” sound towards the end of the song sounds like the Batman theme, something which perhaps unintentionally undermines the weight of the song. This is La Roux. Never 100% cool, sometimes a bit silly, always fun and consummately pulling incredible pop hooks out of the sky.
“Never 100% cool, sometimes a bit silly, always fun and consummately pulling incredible pop hooks out of the sky”
This brings us to “Let Me Down Gently”, the unarguable standout. If every other song on this record doesn’t live up to the bar it sets, it doesn’t exactly reflect poorly on them; “Let Me Down Gently” is a masterpiece. The opening “huh-hah”s, the organ, the slow-building atmosphere, the tortured vocal, the false ending, the soul-purging beat that slams in, that saxophone. If La Roux never makes another album, “Let Me Down Gently” will remain a sky-high testament to her pop artistry. It’s just so good.
Perhaps La Roux doesn’t directly influence the swinging pendulum of trends, but Jackson’s keen ear and stubborn refusal to do anything but what she sets out to do means that her work certainly predates them. If the eponymous debut was an edgy slice of 80s retro-futurism before Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen even had the twinkle of an overly-quantised synth in their eyes, Trouble in Paradise predicted the wave of tropical pop that started in 2015 and unfortunately, still hasn’t ended. Minimal compositions dealing with steel drums and airless percussion, tropical ambitions with angsty undercurrents, make pretty much the bulk of chart music to this day.
Then there’s “Get Lucky”-gate. Savvy music listeners noticed that the chord progression in “Tropical Chancer” had been previously used in the ubiquitous 2013 Daft Punk hit “Get Lucky” and accused Jackson of, to put it lightly, being overly-influenced by the track. Let’s overlook that it’s a very common chord progression; Nile Rodgers of Chic, who wrote and played guitar on the song, visited Jackson in the studio in early 2013, when most of the songs on Trouble were well-finished. Not saying anything but, if anyone was influenced by anyone…
The only thing that could be added to improve Trouble in Paradise would be a bridge or some kind of outro to the kind of spare verse-chorus-verse-chorus-abrupt end of “Tropical Chancer”, something the band fixed with an extended jam at the end of the live version. This is a small thing; otherwise, it’s a pretty perfect album. Seeing as it’s likely going to be 2019 and another five years before another La Roux album materialises (the only tidbit of news is in an early October interview in DIY with Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey, who all too briefly mentions that he’s finishing up her third record and that it sounds “really good”), there’s still plenty of time to listen to some of the most uplifting and well-crafted pop music of the 2010s.