It’s been five years since English synth-pop duo La Roux captured the sounds of the future (and, okay, a healthy dose of the 1980s) on their eponymous debut, which launched the group to the top of the U.K. charts thanks to songs that were the musical equivalent of accidentally tripping the alarm system at an interplanetary rave (“Bulletproof,” “In for the Kill”).
But as the title of the band’s sophomore album, Trouble in Paradise, suggests, it hasn’t been smooth sailing since: founding member Ben Langmaid, a key architect of the La Roux sound, quit the group due to creative differences (though he’s still credited on several songs); meanwhile, flame-haired frontwoman Elly Jackson, who says the two are “not on good terms at all, in any way shape or form,” weathered panic attacks, vocal problems and a handful of axed collaborations as she completed a radical sonic departure that drew from the disco sounds of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Prepare yourself — the decidedly less flashy Trouble in Paradise may sound unrecognizable to casual listeners at first, but stripping away much of what made a La Roux album a La Roux album in the first place only reveals what more dedicated fans probably knew all along: Jackson has always been not just the beating heart of the project, but a keen supplier of frothy, falsetto hooks.
La Roux’s first album was a relentless assault of synthesizers and programmed beats, all smoke machines and strobe lights. Trouble in Paradise, on the other hand, sounds like Jackson took a much-needed tropical vacation (check the vivid album cover’s beach scene) and let her hair down (she no longer sprays her ‘do into gravity-defying sculptures, at least). The stripped-down songs are looser, sparser, sexier (see “Kiss and Not Tell” and “Sexotheque”) and more analog. They’re also arguably a little more fun — the catwalk strut of “Cruel Sexuality” and the jangling guitars of “Uptight Downtown” don’t quite make the trip to Funkytown, but they get close.
It might be tempting to lump La Roux’s retro sound into some kind of post-“Get Lucky” movement plundering pop’s past, but there’s no doubt Jackson worked very hard to sound like she’s hardly working. Considering how long it took to follow up La Roux, the album’s breezy nine songs must have just barely crossed the finish line. There’s also nothing quite as irresistible as the band’s most famous song, perhaps because, without so many blaring keyboards competing for attention, Jackson can choose to get lost in the groove instead of fighting to be heard. But as for Jackson’s vision of mining decades past while sounding as 21st-century fresh as ever? Mission accomplished.