By guest blogger Kaushik Chakravarthy

British singer-songwriter, Sophie Ellis-Bextor has been known to wildly oscillate from one side of the sonic spectrum to another on her albums. Her rich and diverse catalogue spans a wide spectrum encompassing everything from britpop, disco, electropop, EDM, baroque rock, new wave to orchestral reworkings of her own songs. Her latest offering, undoubtedly her magnum opus, engages the listener with some proggy-psychedelia.

HANA is the third and final chapter in a trilogy created by Sophie and her long-time collaborator, producer Ed Harcourt – a master tunesmith, and a singer-songwriter in his own right. It is inspired by a trip that Sophie took to Japan, but also her own dream-like vision of a Japanese landscape. Together, Sophie and Ed have concocted fantastic tunes about witches, cursed dolls, and runaway brides on their first offering, “Wanderlust” – a baroque-pop behemoth that drew its strange and whimsical influences from Eastern Europe. Their second offering, “Familia”, was a bold beauty. It moved the witch and the runaway bride from icy landscapes to sunny Latin America, while also showcasing whimsical tunes about cults and Greek priestesses. At its heart, this was a new-wave record, aiming to be the heir to every Blondie album that ever existed. Their third and final offering is a bashful, but truly magnificent creature – one that is completely unique to Sophie’s already distinctly varied catalogue.

Opening the album with “A Thousand Orchids”, a wink to the past, Sophie declares “you’ll find no witches waiting here, no ghosts hidden within the dark”. It is already apparent to the listener that Sophie wants them to sit down and listen, as she tenderly delivers some poignant lyrics about transience of life – “forging a path to the elegance of those rambling Elysian Fields, it’s so very human to live as if nothing will end”. At the outset, this feels like an intro to a dystopian soundscape but slowly unfurls some sounds akin to a Japanese string instrument and then builds into something much more dramatic and grander, with atmospheric ghostly vocals looped backwards. There are some big drum-crashes as the song draws to a close, like something out of an 80s torch song. An emotional piano, the very dystopian synth that sounds like it’s coming right out of the Stranger Things soundtrack, plucked strings, and big dramatic drums – all enveloped by Sophie’s melancholic vocals that lead us into this new realm that she has envisioned. What an unusual way to introduce a pop album, even to those who are very familiar with Sophie’s discography. Unusual, but also very strong!

Dramatic deep strings introduce “Breaking The Circle” to the listener, before building to a piano driven progression. This spirited powerhouse was the first taster from the album – setting the expectation for a prog-rock infused pop record. There’s a fairly raw production approach to this song – which feels like a natural sonic extension of the last two albums. In many ways, this song feels like a sequel to “Wild Forever”, a single from her last studio album. Sophie does not get enough credit for being a brilliant vocalist. The key change in the bridge before the chorus is something that Billy Reeves, her former bandmate from theaudience, would be so proud of! And the euphoric chorus injects so much energy into an already vibrant song! In her press release, Sophie mentioned that the song inspired by those late-night moments, where you question everything and feel a buzz of adrenaline about what tomorrow might bring.

Next up is the rollicking number “Until The Wheels Fall Off” which Sophie dedicated to her late stepdad, John. In fact, some of the lyrics on the song are directly lifted from a letter John had written, to be read at his funeral. Sonically, this one harks back to her teenage days in her former indie-rock band. The song also has a bit of a Springsteen feel to it – especially when Richard Jones (Sophie’s husband and bass guitarist of British rock band The Feeling) and Ed join in on the second chorus. This energetic radio-friendly number will probably go down well in a live setting. Despite its origins, this song is surprisingly upbeat – celebrating love and holding on “through all the crazy times, all of the lows and highs”. There’s a sense of hope and positivity that permeates throughout the album – many of the songs focus on letting go of the past and looking forward to a brighter future. In fact, HANA is the Japanese word for blossom – which Sophie intends as a new beginning especially after the world tilted.

A menacing synth and a prominent beat introduce the buzz single, “Everything Is Sweet”, to the listener. There are darker undertones in the lyric and melody. Sophie sings about being taken to a place “where everything is sweet and lovely, and nothing bad ever happens”, where her “smile wouldn’t hide the sadness”. The instrumentation on this song is reminiscent of Depeche Mode and Human League. Even though the song is just 10 seconds shy of the 5-minute mark, it doesn’t feel like a very long song. In fact, the albums clocks nearly 50 minutes of play time with just 12 songs – a bold move in today’s streaming era where songs barely cross the 2-minute mark. These are masters at work – Sophie and Ed.

The second single from the album, “Lost In The Sunshine”, explores another new sound for Sophie – warm and cozy, but also a tiny bit slinky. Sophie’s soulful vocals paint a picture of a date on a lazy, hazy, sunny day in the verses; but it is that cheerful melody and her airy vocals in the chorus that takes the crown. Something about this song recalls that neo-soul / R&B sound championed by Corinne Bailey Rae early in her career. Continuing the warm soulful sound is a song called “Tokyo”, which marks the end of side-A on the vinyl. Despite being written even before her trip to Japan, Sophie envisions an escapade in a dream-like version of the country, while probably pondering deeper about the journey that we are on in these modern times – “there’s beauty here beside machines, the world is wide and evergreen, since I’ve been here I’ve had such dreams”.

Introducing side-B to listener is the most straightforward pop number on the album. “Beyond The Universe” is an undeniably catchy number that sees a starry-eyed Sophie dreaming about a love song while floating through the emptiness of space “we’re not tethered to the ground, not weighed down by any sound, nothing is around, just dust, stars and the rest is lost”. This feels like a lesser quirky version of another interstellar love song that Sophie made way back in the mid noughties – “Supersonic”. Like almost every song on the album, there’s room for every instrument, every sound and every little detail to breathe while Sophie’s dreamy vocals enchant the listener. This song is a good example of well executed top notch pop.

He’s A Dreamer” is lush and woozy. Until the chorus hits, the song feels like it is meandering aimlessly. But then that simple chorus redeems the song and captivates the listener. The instrumentation in this song is gorgeous, but that middle-8 is an intriguing choice. While it can be interpreted in many ways, Sophie is actually singing about her sons and their creativity.

The queen of the Kitchen Disco (one of the defining music livestreams of the early Covid19 months) does not miss an opportunity to sneak in a dancey number for the fans. “Reflections” shimmers like a glitterball, proudly reflecting its Abba and Hall & Oates influences. “I don’t have the power the transfix you, what can I do to convince you to set me free” she sings on this 70’s inspired disco number. But now at 44, Sophie’s disco numbers are not about falling in love, but about looking older in the mirror while pondering about life, mistakes and how everything is fleeting at the end of the day… And why shouldn’t they be? This is grown-up pop music after all!

Next up is a hallucinogenic number that sounds a little Japanese. Intrigued by synaesthesia, a condition that her collaborator Ed has, Sophie was inspired to write about the senses stimulated by love, while likening the experience to Ed’s sensory reaction of seeing color while listening to sounds. “I’m hearing in color, glitch in my bloodstream” she sings in a slightly sinister sounding chorus. Despite being one of the more accessible numbers on the record, it is a little experimental. The way the same chorus morphs into something euphoric at the end of the song is another example of great execution!

Broken Toy” is a weird but wonderful one. Sophie sings about an unhealthy relationship in the verses, which feel slightly saccharine, but it’s also slightly ominous in other parts of the song.
“We’ve Been Watching You” begins with western guitar and quickly finds Sophie delivering some eerie melodies. As the song progresses, we hear some belligerent chanting, frenzied trippy sounds and what sounds like a UFO taking off. Why – well, the song is quite literally about aliens coming to rescue a few people after the world has been completely screwed up. What’s a Sophie Ellis-Bextor album without something quirky? What a wonderfully whimsical way to end the album.

Additional potential singles from the album (in order of release sequence): Hearing in Colour, Beyond The Universe, We’ve Been Watching You

STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

FOLLOW our guest blogger Kaushik on Instagram!


Broadcasting Worldwide

In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s,90s, and the 00s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Coldplay, Kylie Minogue, Dubstar, Tears For Fears, Go West, Duran Duran, Belinda Carlisle, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, Suede, The Corrs, Jamiroquai, Keane, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.

Give us a spin when you get a chance.
We just might become your alternative of choice!