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La Roux Resets with the Eminently Enjoyable Supervision

on February 07, 2020, 12:00am

The Lowdown: “It’s the question that everyone’s been asking: where have I been?” So begins Elly Jackson’s revealing 2019 interview with Dazed, in which the pop singer-songwriter also known as La Roux gave fans an update on her whereabouts since the release of 2014’s underrated Trouble in Paradise. As it turns out, the break hasn’t been a relaxing one, a sentiment that could reasonably be applied to most of her post-debut career. In the decade since “Bulletproof” and “In for the Kill” topped the charts, Jackson dealt with the still-undiagnosed loss of her once-signature falsetto, the termination of her contract with Polydor, and the dissolution of relationships with both former La Roux collaborator Ben Langmaid and her longtime romantic partner. The result was what she describes as “a very, very, very mini breakdown, a very quick one” that saw her scrap the three-years-in-the-making follow-up to Trouble in Paradise and start completely over. Aided by co-producer Dan Carey, she’s returned with Supervision, a new collection of self-care retro-pop that took just four months from conception to completion.

(Buy: Tickets to Upcoming La Roux Shows)

The Good: Freed from the paralysis of perfectionism by Supervision’s quick turnaround time, La Roux instead powers her third record with unvarnished honesty. Lyrically, the candor shown by Jackson in recent interviews also appears on Supervision, whose best tracks are likely to resonate with anyone facing down a quarter-life crisis. Opener “21st Century” finds Jackson hunting for the stability that’s supposed to come with age (“I wasn’t satisfied at 25 or 23”), while the outro of “Do You Feel” hits like an intake checklist of modern existential anxieties (“Do you feel like you’ve forgotten something?/ Do you feel like you’ve been left behind?/ Does it feel like you’re running from it?/ All the while running out of time?”).

Although the words of Supervision are often heavy, the music behind them remains lighter than air. From the slinky synth hook and stuttering drum-machine beats of “International Woman of Leisure” to the actual (or actually simulated) bells and whistles of “He Rides”, Jackson and co-producer Carey deliver a danceable ode to the high end; when the bass finally takes the spotlight, as it does on closer “Gullible Fool”, its presence feels genuinely meaningful. The reemergence of the rumble isn’t all that sets Supervision’s final track apart; what begins as a ballad in which Jackson wrestles with the urge to believe after being burned (and burned and burned again) unfolds across a well-earned runtime of seven-plus minutes into a house-inflected banger about the reclamation of agency in the face of uncertainty. As a thesis on Jackson’s bumpy decade, it’s revealing. As a pop song, it may be the most powerful thing she’s ever written.

The Bad: Although the “first thought, best thought” nature of Supervision’s creation produced some of La Roux’s strongest work in years, it also allowed a few cuts to sneak past the editing process. With an eight-song tracklist and 42-minute runtime, the record somehow still manages to feel overstuffed. Part of this comes down to the relative weakness of the second-half; apart from “Gullible Fool”, the rest of Side B consists of serviceable three-minute pop songs trapped in the bodies of five-minute snoozers. Like slow-developing Polaroids, many tracks beg to be shaken into urgency; “Automatic Driver” spends its first 90 seconds frustratingly thin and incomplete until the extra synths and backing vocals arrive at the first chorus. The song adds even catchier layers from then on, leaving listeners to wonder why they had to wait so long to get there. The fact that all eight tracks run at around the same tempo doesn’t help matters; asking for another song as urgent as “Bulletproof” might not be fair, but wishing for a little more variety most certainly is.

The Verdict: Though she’s bristled at the idea of the comeback album (“I didn’t go anywhere” reads the headline of her 2014 interview with The Independent), Supervision feels like a soft reset for Elly Jackson’s work as La Roux. Her early days on poptimism’s crossover vanguard helped usher in a world where left-of-center artists from Carly Rae Jepsen and Lizzo to Billie Eilish could find critical and commercial success. Now a certified pop vet, La Roux returns with a work that translates the hard-earned lessons of the past decade into another collection of radio-ready dance-pop whose best tracks manage to sound timeless and topical at the same time. It’s an eminently listenable album, and her best shot in years at recapturing some of those triumphs for herself.

Essential Tracks: “Gullible Fool”, “International Woman of Leisure”, and “Do You Feel”

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