La Roux - Trouble In Paradise

La Roux’s highly anticipated sophomore record falls prey to the bland pop model.

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ALBUM: Trouble In Paradise




It feels like decades have passed since La Roux released “Bulletproof” back in 2009 and ignited her futuristic pop stardom. Five years is an eternity in the world of pop music, so it makes sense that the clamor for the follow-up to her explosive debut has slowly escalated. With a wait like this expectations elevate alongside fan anxiety. For La Roux, the pressure to make the best sophomore record as possible enhanced when Elly Jackson’s bandmate Ben Langmaid dropped out of the band. Though he had contributed to the writing of the record, she had to continue on her own, bringing their name’s translation of “red-haired one” to a more literal light. On the final product, her highly anticipated sophomore record Trouble in Paradise, it feels like she hit the iconic slump everyone worries about. While the record boasts polished and pure pop, Jackson has lost her edge in a big way by relying heavily on cliché disco tropes.

What made La Roux’s debut go the extra mile was the sheer edginess of the sound, with Jackson’s vocal chops added in for good measure. It was pop, but it embraced the brashness of punk in the punchy lyrics and vocal delivery. This record, on the other hand, is much softer. The beats aren’t as tight, her vocals are more buried in the mix, and it’s covered in a glossy layer of distortion. At times, she really executes this new sound well, like in the languid and achingly romantic “Paradise is You.” But the rest is really missing some driving spark that pulses through the songs and gives them life. In their hit “Bulletproof,” that passion was Jackson’s voice at the front and center, driving the song in the hearts and heads of dance floor dwellers. Without it, they remain archetypes of the mediocre pop model dancing around tropes of New Wave and disco. The real disappointment is that, musically, it’s not too innovative or interesting. In fact, there seems to be some heavy lifts of Bowie, with that “Let’s Dance” horn riff appearing in a significant number of songs, most prominently in “Uptight Downtown.” At first appearance, it conjures a nice dose of familiarity; soon, the pattern becomes tired and over-utilized.

The songs suffer in other ways, too—a significant facet being her lyrics. In this collection of songs, she explores unfulfilling relationships, romantic longing, and other life conflicts; it’s very easy to process. However, the lyrics seem to try too hard to fit into the rigid pop poetry model that they feel uninspired. Take these lyrics from “Uptight Downtown,” for example: “Streets are lined with people with nothing else to lose, lose, lose/When did all these people decide to change their shoes, shoes, shoes.” Rhyming for the sake of rhyming certainly adds a fun flavor to the song’s catchiness, but the borderline tacky means to get there take away some of her creative integrity.

La Roux played it safe this time around. At best, it’s a middling of songs that never become fully realized. At the end of the day, what they really have going for them is their sheer catchiness. It’s a promise that you’ll have little bits of each of them stuck in your head for hours, and looking at the song titles will only conjure the hooks again and again. The songs may be only okay, but you surely won’t forget them.

“Where is rationality, when I’m lost inside a dream?”

1. Uptight Downtown
The first five seconds of this song are practically silent, as the anticipation builds exponentially for what comes next. It’s entirely symbolic, as a record that has been five years in the making, to let the listener linger even longer. When the mix finally fades in, the atmosphere is punctured with pulsing beats and heavy disco-inspired guitars complete with a cursory horn section. In fact, it’s so disco heavy that it almost feels like a direct lift of “Let’s Dance” at times. Jackson’s falsetto joins in with an air of breeziness, but the edginess she conveys best is almost drowned out by the cloud of distortion that’s slick but overpowering. In terms of lyrical maturity, her words tried too hard to fit into a rigid poetic structure , with easy rhymes like, “Streets are lined with people with nothing else to lose, lose, lose/When did all these people decide to change their shoes, shoes, shoes.” At first pass, it’s certainly a banger of a song, but its reliance on pop clichés makes it lose steam quickly.6.8
2. Kiss and Not Tell
After the unfortunate dullness of the last track, this one starts out like a breath of fresh air with a playfully fresh keyboard melody paired with an infectious beat-driven groove. Equally as playful are her breezy vocals that float above the musical accompaniment. Despite some earlier reliance on the usual disco tropes, “Kiss and Not Tell” is definitely more texturally interesting, with the soundscape building in a seemingly calculated fashion, with keyboard layering to provide some warm ambiance. What also sets it apart is her emotional honesty. This song seems to be about a secret romance that she wants to make public. She airs her struggles in lines like, “And all I want is to come right out of my shell/Makes you want to kiss and not tell.” It’s ultimately very refreshing.7.8
3. Cruel Sexuality
As she weans off her reliance on the over-utilized disco sample, the resulting sound is groovy yet a little subdued. A combination of bass and shaker anchor the groove, providing the perfect setting for Jackson’s vocals to take center stage. Exploring her vocals ranges, her very dynamic experiments take her from the soulful and sultry to an insane falsetto. Her lyrics here toe the line between being memorable and forgettable. “You make me happy in my everyday life/Why must you keep me in your prison at night”, is very simply put, but it’s definitely easy to identify with what she’s relating. But as a line that’s repeated with no emotional tension or build, it gets tired quickly. It does sound fun when it’s layered with the vocals of the chorus. The little innovations try hard to save the sound, but just keep it afloat.7.5
4. Paradise Is You
When a song titled “Paradise Is You” starts with, “Walking along on a sandy beach/Everybody’s laughing under cigarette trees,” it’s just too easy. And that’s only the beginning of the stereotypical tropical motifs (read: lots of Hawaiian breeze). Despite this setback, this track is surprisingly one of the best on the record. Its strength lies in the incredibly compelling arrangement. This one differs from its album predecessors in that it’s an ethereal piano ballad. The whole soundscape is so lush, padded nicely in reverb (and not even to an overwhelming degree). Like its tropical themes, it ebbs and flows, crescendos and decrescendos. You really hear the passion in Jackson’s voice, and by the end, she learns to capitalize on the beauty of vocal layering amidst a sonically shimmering synth line. This one really picks itself up by the bootstraps and grows into something simply sweet and romantic.8.5
5. Sexotheque
The seventeen-second long drum intro gets the tension going for a big musical explosion that, unfortunately, never happens. The keyboard riff that joins in with the eternal drum explores a new disco trope, one more playful—almost like Earth Wind Fire lite. It’s sweet, but it’s honestly a bit too puerile. The most compelling aspect of the song is its actual content. It’s a tried and true narrative: the woman wants a serious relationship, the man wants to be promiscuous—conflict ensues. But it’s very relatable for a lot of people as an access point into the song. Despite its formulaic and static nature, there’s one moment (and its repetitions) that’s utterly inescapable and unforgettable: the way she sings “money” in the chorus. The way she spits out the triplicated word makes them sparkle. Perhaps it stands out even more due to the static landscape, but listening in is worth it for at least those moments alone.7.1
6. Tropical Chancer
The instrumentation of the song is a mash up of reggae guitar, late Strokes-esque guitar jaunts, and tropical drums, which feels interesting for thirty seconds until the same pattern repeats and repeats for the entire song. Her singing is the most reminiscent of that on her debut, but overall, her intonation just feels very lifeless and bored—as does the rest of the song in general. The musical breadth the song covers is noble, but it just doesn’t cut through.6.5
7. Silent Partner
Dripping with 80s vibes, “Silent Partner” could easily be a Cyndi Lauper B-side. Other than conjuring large waves of synth nostalgia, this song doesn’t work on many other levels. The buzzy yet murky bass groove feels fun and fresh for a while, but for the duration of a seven minute song, the repetition overstays its welcome for a little bit. Her vocals sound breezy but determined and mesh well with the cascading synth modulations bathed in a reverbed sheen, but the vocal melody sounds a little too familiar, like an aggregate of a bunch of past melodies. Her musical ideas here are promising but underdeveloped, and at around the 4 minutes mark where the average song would start to fade out, the music vibes on with no real aim.7.5
8. Let Me Down Gently
A slowed down opening piqued with exaggerated breaths makes for a very dramatic set-up. As the tension boils and builds with the synth dirges, it almost feels like the entire world is slowing down with you. The lyrical progression matches this vibe very well: “Set me up slowly” all the way to, “Let me down gently”. It’s exactly what she does with the song. The mellow synth accompaniment buzzes with tension, building up towards some sort of climax. It turns out that climax is a short pause of silence before a cascading synth groove comes in. The only flaw of this song, a pretty moderate one, is that it feels way too slow for its own good. Somehow, it sounds oddly behind tempo, so as it drags on, its pace distracts from the song’s other, better attributes.7.2
9. The Feeling
It’s a great feeling when a louder album ends with a quiet and intimate final track. It feels like a breath of fresh air after a long jog. In this case, no dice. Either the track’s production or mixing left her vocals and harmonies dangerously off-key and shrill. On the bright side, it is that intimate raw affair after eight songs of polish and shine, but not in the way you’d want it to be.5.0
Written by Hailey Simpson
Now attending college at UC Berkeley, Hailey's main passions in life are attending every concert she possibly can while keeping up with her studies, drinking copious amounts of Philz Coffee, and spinning tunes on her college radio station KALX.

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