Though I’m not sure how I feel about the general quality of 2014’s musical releases so far, I can say with certainty that there’s been some sad stuff. Many of the critically acclaimed releases this year are heavy, from Sharon Van Etten’s lovely, heartbreaking Are We There to Against Me!’s hopeful but piercingly honest Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Even my last three reviews (featuring How to Dress Well, The Antlers, and Owen Pallett) are just a parade of intense emotions.
Maybe that’s why La Roux’s Trouble in Paradise struck me so much this past week. Before we get any further, it needs to be said that this is a largely unhappy album. That’s clear from the name alone. What separates this album and makes it one of the more enjoyable releases this year is that it doesn’t dwell as long and as heavily on the sadness. It’s broken up so that darker songs like “Cruel Sexuality” build tension that is quickly and effectively shed by “Paradise Is You.” This can even happen within a song, like on “Silent Partner,” which, by the end, breaks into a synthy jam that seems to melt away any anger that may have preceded it earlier in the song.
This album just works. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but that’s part of what makes it so impressive. These are nine fairly straightforward love songs. Elly Jackson, now the only member of this synthpop act, has a fine voice but certainly doesn’t have the pipes of someone like Sia. Yet through some wonderful synth melodies and impressive songwriting, Trouble in Paradise turns into a fun, strangely intimate pop album that is nearly free of major flaws.
Those looking for the next “Bulletproof” won’t find it. This is a slower album with a few more ballads. The springy melody of “Kiss and Not Tell” is just about the closest Jackson gets to matching the pulse-pounding hyperactivity of her past singles. It’s all for the best, because Jackson is an artist who has something to say, and what she says will stick with the listener not just because these songs are catchy as hell, but also because they’re extremely smart and well-crafted.