Back in 2009, Elly Jackson, the public face of La Roux, was that hyper-emotional sophomore who just needed an ear at 1 a.m. to share her most recent tragedy. Most of us were happy to oblige, though the shrill and heartbreak got to be a bit much by the time finals rolled around. Despite that connection, Jackson disappeared from the limelight come 2010, except for the few “Bulletproof” remixes that were still making the rounds. Still, just a few notes of “In for the Kill” or “Quicksand” brought back hazy memories of disgruntled phone calls and body-moving late-night celebrations. It’s been five years since those initial encounters, yet, as with all close friendships, the dialogue still flows as comfortably as ever across La Roux’s sophomore LP, Trouble in Paradise.
No longer working with longtime friend and songwriting/production partner Ben Langmaid (who still receives credit on six of the album’s nine tracks), Jackson emerges with a newfound confidence in her delivery. But she isn’t without new distresses. “He’ll trade your loving for the things he’s never seen/ The place he’s never been,” Jackson warns during the Major Lazer remix-ready “Tropical Chancer”. “Above the member he is just a good pretender/ And he doesn’t give his love away for free.” These notions of love, lust, and wealth repeat throughout the release — possibly the outcome of Jackson’s apprehension toward her near-instant fame and the “friends” that came with. Songs about strip clubs are nothing new in pop music; “Sexotheque” shifts the perspective to the female guise: “She wants to know why he’s not home/ All that money, money, money on him/ He wants to know/ Why he feels so cold inside, cold inside/ He turns her picture round, he doesn’t hear a sound.” It’s not only the feminine narrator that finds sorrow in the breakdown of communication; the subsequent affair, Jackson argues, does little to fulfill the male’s carnal desires. Maintaining a radio-friendly appeal, the tracks delve into the battered psyche of many twentysomethings — characters making all the wrong decisions in an attempt to find the correct path.
The term “character” is fitting given Jackson’s resistance to defining her own gender and sexuality — an issue that has only edged closer to popular discussion since La Roux’s eponymous debut. The tracks play like stoic personal tales — a nod to Jackson’s songwriting abilities — yet when one begins to deconstruct the tracks, the first-person narrative structure begins to erode. “Tropical Chancer” and “Sexotheque” are about heterosexual relationships; however, they follow a series of tracks that challenge that conclusion. The spandex-clad electro of “Kiss and Not Tell” and the bluesy riffs of “Cruel Sexuality” flow from a soul still satisfied by tumultuous experimentation. Continually calibrating her sense of “self,” there was nothing to interfere with Jackson casting herself as the “he” within the songs. Jackson has admitted that during the recording of the album, she felt herself drifting away from Langmaid, a process that is vaguely documented during “Silent Partner”. Is it possible that Jackson herself is now the conquistador of some of these ballads? Jackson would have to answer the question herself, but the thought alone means she has completed an electropop disc that is more complex than the majority of her contemporaries.
Jackson found much of her initial success cast as a recovering victim; her lyrical advancement stems from her discovering that she can also be the tormentor. During “Silent Partner”, Jackson admits that “something inside of me keeps dragging me down”; her own experience is to blame on the riff-laden “Let Me Down Gently”. The latter track balances love as a symbol of accomplishment (“Turn me into someone good/ That is what I really need”) with the more mature notion of shared experiences (“You’re not my life but I want you in it”). Jackson no longer needs to be bulletproof to survive. The scars now help guide her growth.
Still a pop record at the end of the day, the album is not without its share of weak lyrics. During opener “Uptight Downtown”, which is an insight into the palpable sadness of most metropolises, Jackson throws in a verse about people changing their shoes for no other reason except to fit the beat. The moments are minimal and easy to forget when hypnotized by the piano melody and effortlessly delivered vocal interplay of “Paradise Is You”, a track that screams for a Billy Joel collaboration. Plus, it’s one of the few times that fans can celebrate Jackson’s troubled love life.
Personally nearing 30, I have finally come to the realization that whatever path I chose over a decade ago for my adulthood has since eroded in questionable decisions. On Trouble in Paradise, we are allowed to participate in Jackson’s insecurities. One can dance their cares away momentarily; however, they only disappear when we are forced to accept them.
Essential Tracks: “Tropical Chancer”, “Silent Partner”