Pop music thrives on narratives. Catchy choruses can make stars, but it’s stories that keep artists in the zeitgeist even when the hits become less common. But the zeitgeist is greedy, and five years out of the spotlight is enough to inspire a “who?” in this era. Cue La Roux.
La Roux was what some later thought to be a fluke. In 2009, the British duo — consisting of vocalist Elly Jackson and her songwriting and production partner, Ben Langmaid — rose to Grammy-winning, Kanye-collaborating levels fame, thanks in part to Top 10 hit “Bulletproof.” Despite copping heavily from 1980s synth-pop, “Bulletproof” remains a timeless song that brings a certain crowd to the dance floor without fail, even five years later.
Much of La Roux’s debut, In For The Kill, was also impressive, albeit a bit “tinny” (to borrow Jackson’s own recent recollection). Still, it marked Jackson as a new anti-pop star to champion, and the duo were generally seen as “one to watch” — as if they had anything to prove (you try writing a song as killer as “Bulletproof”) — and to ultimately “meh” over when the sophomore slump set in. There were questions in addition to the excitement, which only added to the narrative: Is Elly Jackson La Roux? (Basically, what does Langmaid do?) Is she actively trying to look like Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie? And does this androgynous style and quiff hairstyle suggest she’s gay?
By 2011, there were even more questions. As in, where’s the new La Roux album? Up until this point, everything seemed to follow the usual music industry career pattern: the duo promoted their album on late-night shows, in the music press, and at various festivals around the world. They toured the globe. And then they went back home to write a new record. There were news stories suggesting that album would sound cheekier, folkier, and rockier, made with the aid of a mysterious band rumored to be White Lies. How would this combination relate to La Roux’s previously established sound? We never found out, and eventually we stopped asking, even after a 2013 “comeback tour.” Good.
There is, finally, a new La Roux album out this week. It’s called Trouble In Paradise, and there is a narrative not completely unlike the one that surrounded In For The Kill: ‘Look at this unexpected (and unexpectedly great) pop album to champion.’ La Roux lapped the zeitgeist so many times, she found a wormhole in it: blow the deadlines placed arbitrarily on art by online culture and the expectations may be lessened out of sheer excitement when something, anything turns up. I’m reminded of the silly games played between the first few dates with a new suitor: ignore ‘em a little, they’ll just be happy to hear from you. I’m also reminded a little of the golden rule of Internet news cycles: be timely, or have the final word with the strongest take. Turns out the latter strategy works for Jackson, who’s since dropped Langmaid; Trouble In Paradise is an even stronger album than In For The Kill.
In For The Kill flirted with electro and ’80s pop at the tail-end of one of the time periods when it was particularly de rigueur to do so. Trouble In Paradise takes the disco revivalism of late — from the populist “Let’s Get Physical” to the experimental fusion of Larry Levan — and creates something much more human than La Roux’s debut. Electronic music is, of course, made by machines controlled by humans. But what Jackson gains by incorporating actual instruments into her new sound is a warm pulse to perfectly accompany her vulnerable stories. The juxtaposition of tropical paradise/heaven and hell is used a few times to represent romantic rapture and heartbreak, so some songs border on well-trodden lyrical territory (“Paradise Is You”). But many pull off that clever pop trick of seeming specific and yet applicable to a number of situations depending on the listener (“Cruel Sexuality”). Dance music rarely sounds this welcoming, and it’s funny on top of that (see: “Sexotheque”).
The explanation, if you need one, is simple: life happened to Elly Jackson. She struggled with some vocal issues that made it so her stunning falsetto range would not float out when she opened her mouth. She did not particularly enjoy being famous and felt burnt out. The songs initially felt as though they were coming out sideways. These things build up the mythology of a La Roux comeback, but they’re mostly unimportant in the long run. The new songs say enough.