Going solo leaves Elly Jackson free to indulge in lush neo-disco-laced with anxiety
When Future Islands cut a rug across the //Late Show With David Letterman// set in March, it wasn’t just the spectacle that quickened the pulse. For all Samuel T Herring’s spasms – a Marlon Brando marionette with all the strings pulled at once – there wouldn’t have been much of a story without the flowing surge of electropop that reminded us of something often forgotten: nothing does warmth quite like a synthesizer.
It’s a counter-intuitive idea taken to its glorious conclusion on La Roux’s second album. Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid’s 2009 debut encapsulated the notion of synth as cold machine, playing stark melodies almost humanised by an austere singer in the ancient tradition minted by Kraftwerk and Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army – but everything’s changed now. Jackson’s lost Langmaid and found the bottom end.
The discovery of bass must have been a revelation, irrevocably switching the La Roux sound from sparse to lush. Was this what drove a wedge between them? The singer had delved into disco’s deeper cuts; the reticent boffin was still hung up on tin-pot early Depeche Mode-isms. It was 1978 vs 1981, when one era of electronic music was ousted by another. The war to end all wars.
Still, it solves one eternal conundrum – La Roux genuinely is a solo artist now, and ‘Trouble In Paradise’ really feels like a solo album. Langmaid has retained a handful of credits and Jackson has a new foil in My Bloody Valentine producer Ian Sherwin, but this is a record that sparks theories about the artist. She’s given a bit of herself. Five years’ work will do that. It’s been a tortuous half-decade that’s found Jackson riven with anxiety in the aftermath of her debut, to the point where she couldn’t even sing, but she comes out reborn. There are traces though: ‘Let Me Down Gently’ is a slow-burning exercise in worry; ‘Silent Partner’ is a pulsating rejection of the depressive demon at Jackson’s shoulder; and the impossibly gorgeous ‘Paradise Is You’, with its sandy beach and Hawaiian breeze, is a panic-prevention visualisation technique disguised as a love song. That’s another sea change, a chink in the frosty Jackson exterior.
Mind you, she’s still the Thin White Duke reincarnated, and it’s not just the translucent skin and sweep of red hair. Deliriously funky opener ‘Uptight Downtown’ rides a juddering riff that sounds like Nile Rodgers shaking a gecko out of his trouser leg on Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. It’s followed by ‘Kiss And Not Tell’, which takes the clockwork synth of ‘Ashes To Ashes’, cuts it to pieces and fashions a Tom Tom Club floorfiller from the debris. This one’s got the kind of quick-win chorus that made ‘Bulletproof’ such an instant earworm, a trick revamped on ‘Sexotheque”s fabulous tale of a man who follows his crotch while his partner broods at home – heartbreak reframed in one of the most joyous tunes of the year.
But even ‘Sexotheque’ might be trumped by ‘Cruel Sexuality’, a treasure trove of vague lyrical clues that might address Jackson’s own sexuality, set to ESG bass, sunlit synths and a closing phase that becomes a near-spiritual mantra. Somehow it sounds like a hit. The same can’t quite be said of ‘The Feeling’, where Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ meets 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ to woozy, hypnagogic effect, but it closes a triumphant album on a soft, sweet high – “//I’m just a child whenever you show//”. Another vulnerable note at the end of a tough old road. In spite of all the terror and uncertainty, it’s the warmth that lingers.