Annie Lennox’s stern, android persona. The asexually metallic voice of Neil Tennant. Marc Almond and Andy Bell’s flamboyant vocals. During the ’80s, the labour-saving potential of the synthesizer allowed for Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell and Erasure to develop a new form. The electropop duo was a perfect yin/yang, the anonymous machine operator and their asexual and ambiguous singer, and it blew the charts wide open. It was a golden age for androgynous, aesthetically sharp British pop.
But during the ’90s Britpop extolled the virtue of the band as a gang of men constructing sonic monuments to rock classicism. The pop world was dominated by the boy or girl band, and in recent years the reality telly act or a procession of mutton-Madonna bimbos from across the Atlantic became commercially dominant. The only hope was Girls Aloud but, with their star seemingly on the wane, things on the home front have felt increasingly stale.
Enter La Roux, the boyish Brixton native with her quiff and mysterious co-writing partner Ben Langmaid. A childhood spent listening to folk and rock’n’roll can be heard in the simultaneous appreciation of songcraft and rejection of traditionalism that is evidenced by the ferocious pace of the opening quartet of cut-glass chart-toppers. Led by 450,000-plus-selling banger ‘In For The Kill’, the synths and beats that shape these four killer tracks are determinedly contemporary, making complete sense of the fact that modernist dubstep maestro Skream gave a mean twist to the smash hit. This is no mere ’80s revivalism.
Where electroclash dilettantes mistake digitalism as an opportunity to sing about sniffing hairspray in elite nightspots, Elly Jackson remains down-to-earth. Unlike cheap Lady Gaga or the WAGs of Girls Aloud – and despite the hype showered on to her ruddy quiff – La Roux is a style icon who still lives with her parents and sings simple lyrics about affairs of the heart, her acrobatic voice describing nothing outré as it flirts with and flits around the synthetics.
These, in the hands of the elusive Langmaid, are key. Retro-futurism is the curse of this decade of irony, and recent electropop has sounded dated – a Hoxtonite vision of a future trapped in the museum of what it was supposed to be. Next single ‘Bulletproof’ is reminiscent of Erasure, but it’s pretty much the only overly familiar moment here, and the charts are already quaking before its brutally irresistible chorus. On ‘Tigerlily’ the synth parts at first resemble harpsichords in space before becoming heavily-processed steel drums, a motif that flows through ‘La Roux’, adding an unselfconscious reflection of her multi-cultural South London home. Langmaid’s ‘Quicksand’ is liquid-mercury-smooth but pierced by sharp vocals; ‘I’m Not Your Toy’’s calypso flick no doubt had Lily Allen green-faced during La Roux’s recent support slot. ‘As If By Magic’ and ‘Fascination’ are suave smashers tucked away towards the album’s close.
British pop acts are at their weakest when they perch on stools and attempt Yank R&B, but La Roux keeps her ballads local. ‘Cover My Eyes’ tenderly tackles jealousy as it blends synthesizers with the backing vocals of the London Community Gospel Choir to curiously hymnal effect. Another perfect slow song is closer ‘Armour Love’, Jackson’s voice a weary croon over mechanical crunching as the keys and synths are put to bed.
All of which adds up to a nigh-on flawless album. Just as fluffed ballads and songwriting by committees of television producers have recently ruined pop, even the great ’80s duos perfected singles but never cracked the long-player. Remarkably, with this astounding debut, an unassuming 21-year-old from SW2 has revitalised a forgotten form to make one of the finest forward-thinking British pop albums of recent memory. Sweet dreams are made of this, indeed.
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