Album review: Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Wanderlust
Our working lives rarely run entirely according to plan, as cold reality forces us in unexpected directions. Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s career is following a particularly pragmatic path, so much so that it can be tough to pin down where her creative heart truly lies.
The daughter of a British television presenter, Ellis-Bextor emerged in the mid-1990s as a teenage singer with a lacklustre indie band called theaudience, then struck it spectacularly lucky as the voice of Spiller’s club classic Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love). A lengthy spin-off stint as a disco diva followed. Intriguingly, she remains enormously popular in Russia.
Wanderlust signals another mighty sea-change, however, a move towards exotic folk-pop and a more mature audience, following the singer’s recent success in the reality TV programme Strictly Come Dancing. But what of those Eastern European fans, still dedicated to her dance beats? Ever resourceful, Ellis-Bexter has added balalaikas, a Bulgarian choir, even a striking cover design that suggests Alice in an Eastern Bloc Wonderland.
This may all sound an awkward marriage of convenience, but actually Wanderlust’s origins are relatively organic. Ellis-Bextor initially hooked up with the gifted singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt (a family friend) to create just one track, inspired by Russian fairy tales, but so enjoyed the process that over two weeks they recorded a full album, aided by a rotating cast of musician friends.
That relaxed, anything-goes atmosphere is encapsulated splendidly by the end product, a consistently surprising, musically bold collection that gambols merrily across numerous novel genres. Is that a hint of 1970s horror movie harpsichord, underpinning Until the Stars Collide? A gypsy waltz, propelling Love Is a Camera? And, on 13 Little Dolls, a curious mix of rockabilly and something from Sesame Street? “I could dye my hair, I could change my name, leave it all behind,” she ponders airily on the nursery rhyme-like Runaway Daydreamer. Wanderlust indeed.
A joyous musical freedom distinguishes this album (released, tellingly, on Ellis-Bextor’s own label), and much credit must go to the underrated Harcourt. The crisply inventive production and instrumentation catch the ear – gorgeous piano and theatrical strings abound, too – but more enduringly impressive are the melodies. Do not be surprised to see his name crop up on records by real pop royalty in the near future.
As for Ellis-Bextor, that unexpectedly fertile fortnight spawned the best album of her career, by far. The wandering star has stumbled upon a musical place to call home.