Jackson seems more and more honest with each release even as she finds new and surprising ways to articulate that honesty.
Elly Jackson never got the stardom that seemed to be coming to her. La Roux’s debut album, released back when the name referred to a duo of herself and Ben Langmaid, was a synth-pop tour-de-force that felt like it was everywhere in 2009. But by the time the group, now merely a solo pseudonym for Jackson, followed up with 2014’s Trouble in Paradise, their moment had passed and the album was at best a minor hit. That sadly obscured the strength of the material, which eclipsed that of the debut and intriguingly took the project into a warmer, disco-heavy direction that arguably stands as one of the first and finest extrapolations of the neo-disco throwback spurred by Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Another half decade separates La Roux’s second LP from this follow-up, Supervision, and once again it seems that absence has allowed this unique talent to be obscured.
If anything, though Supervision is yet another strong entry in Jackson’s small but unimpeachable discography, as well as another stylistic shift for the artist. Opener “21st Century” contains many of the characteristics of Trouble in Paradise: sunny synths, chicken-scratch guitar, laid-back dance grooves. Yet in place of pure disco is something strange, a sound caught between genres. Synths belt out a digital approximation of pipe flute trills that curl around the syncopated beat; the song may be titled “21st Century” but it sounds simultaneously of the past and future, unstuck in time in a state of perpetual summer.
If Trouble in Paradise perpetuated the disco stylings of Random Access Memories, the closest reference point for Supervision may be Prince’s Parade, an album of warped, idiosyncratic beach music to set to the artist’s film about odd romance on the French Riviera. The album is filled with sun-kissed R&B, breezy but underpinned by thick basslines and percussion that sounds like some vague approximation of island music. Indeed, an even stronger connection may be with Japanese city pop, the style of quasi-jazz-funk that gained popularity in the 1980s and is currently enjoying belated exposure in the West. This is summer music for an island that exists only in album covers, one of pure yellow sand, pink buildings and azure skies.
The album often gives off a vibe of hyperreality. “Do You Feel?” blends a lurching, tense bassline against twinkling triangle, adding an edge of unease to a song that otherwise floats on waves of warm synths. “Everything I Live For” finds Jackson matching her vocal cadence to the percolating rhythm of the track, giving each syllable a rubbery quality that stretches but also snaps back abruptly as a piano weaves through various synth lines that buzz and whir in opposition to each other but ultimately coalesce into some kind of melody.
Lyrically, the album traces regular territory for pop. “Automatic Driver” begins almost as bedroom pop, riding an elemental drum machine beat and simple synth chords that sound like a child toying with an instrument. The song itself charts a breakup, asking “In time, oh, will I/ Understand it?” about a rocky relationship that is finally, permanently ending. Closer “Gullible Fool” likewise deals with broken hearts, opening with the caustic “I will believe in love/ And I will believe in you/ Gullible fool.” It’s a bracing note to end an album that sounds so cheery, perhaps a loose acknowledgement of the many setbacks that have plagued La Roux over the years, from romantic and professional breakups to label changes. But the record is still filled with lyrics that match the sonic tone; “Otherside” faces up to disappointment with defiance as Jackson braces against the song’s overall dejection to deliver a counter like “I’d prefer to get down/ Than be living a lie.” The emotional complexity at the heart of the album challenges the occasionally repetitive atmosphere of the music, lending Supervision a tension that rewards multiple listens. In an era where pop identity can feel more manufactured than ever, Jackson seems more and more honest with each release even as she finds new and surprising ways to articulate that honesty.