The tragedy about a solid debut album, one where you’ve created a whole new sonic universe and vocabulary, is that you suddenly realize that you’re expected to do it again. You’re supposed to redefine yourself, burn some elements away, concoct some new ones and cross your fingers.
I had never known depression until I had to write a second album. Conversations with friends turned into anxiety attacks. There was a voice that sang in my head from the moment I woke up until I went to sleep, and not in a good way. There was a constant fear while working that would I never again be able to write anything from a pure, unspoiled place. It was a miserable moment.
From the sounds of her sophomore album Trouble in Paradise, I would guess that Elly Jackson of La Roux probably went through similar pains. “All I need is silence,” she sings in the chorus of “Silent Partner,” and I can’t help but hear it as a plea for those voices to quiet down in your head, after the ticker-tape hype parade of your first album has died down.
It’s taken five years for Trouble in Paradise, the follow-up to her 2009 self-titled synth-pop smash, to rear its sandy, sparkly head, but maybe that’s for the best. Elly recently told the Daily Beast “I realized that when you try to make a record too quickly after the one you’ve just made, you end up making a record out of the dregs of the end of the album you’ve just done, rather than a new, fresh one.” Thankfully, it feels like she waited until she was happy with the final product. There may not be songs with the immediacy of her hits “Bulletproof” and “In for the Kill,” but La Roux’s second album (and her first recorded as a solo artist, following the departure of former bandmate Ben Langmaid) is surprisingly lean and satisfying.
Advance talk of Trouble in Paradise has alluded to its more downtempo feel. Maybe because early single “Let Me Down Gently” was a slight red herring with its brooding and sublime sexual crawl. It’s a magnificent track, but it’s not representative of the album as a whole: a potent nine songs that are breezy, sunny and emotionally taut. The music is still smothered with the La Roux trademark chilly synth arpeggios, yet now there are additional Bahamian-vacation grooves underneath. She’s referred to it as “disco-ragga,” and that feels like an accurate description. The live arrangements bolster the sound, keeping Trouble in Paradise away from the vacuum-packed feel common in so much current studio-based electronic music.
“I don’t even know myself/’cause I’m becoming someone else,” she sings on “Cruel Sexuality.” It’s got hints of an AM radio version of Arthur Russell and acts as a reminder that her voice and image are still refreshingly, distinctly queer. With some “The Tide Is High” vibes and the effervescent cheer that bubbles out of tracks like “Sexotheque” and “Uptight Downtown,” Jackson sounds like a worthy descendant of Boy George; Culture Club was no doubt a touchstone on “Paradise Is You.” But the diamond here really is “Let Me Down Gently,” which sounds like it could score a sex scene in Lethal Weapon. It’s got a Skinemax ambiance, and with Jackson’s slippery delivery, it’s the waterbed on which the rest of the album floats.
I’m really happy for Elly Jackson, and this record sounds like she’s happy about what she’s accomplished. The demons of the follow-up album were scratching at her door, and she patiently waited for them to leave. I can’t imagine any La Roux fans being disappointed with her efforts, which here sound joyfully effortless.