Sophie Ellis-Bextor Takes Her Pop Down a Notch

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 02.06.14 in Spotlights

In the 2000s, Sophie Ellis-Bextor was Britain’s diva-aristocrat standard-bearer, pumping out top-ten hits while the tabloids nattered on about her rivalry with Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham. (Nothing’s more fun than a pop catfight, after all.) Her crystalline voice and precise enunciation folded in beautifully to lush dance tracks like the triumphantly sad “Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer” and the sparkling yet groovy “Murder on the Dance Floor.” But during the making of her fourth album, 2011′s Make a Scene — which included collaborations with techno standard-bearers like Calvin Harris, Richard X and Armin van Buuren — she announced that she would “bow out of the dance sound for now,” thanks in part to the high-octane quotient of her collaborators.

Ellis-Bextor eased out of that world in a decidedly 21st-century way; last year she competed on the British Dancing with the Stars ancestor Strictly Come Dancing and came in fourth (a former Britain’s Next Top Model contestant took home the prize). In January, though, she released Wanderlust, her fifth album, on her own label EBGB’s — and while it isn’t a complete reinvention of her glossy style, its blend of high-end pop and Eastern European influences result in a lush, hooky record that complements Ellis-Bextor’s birdlike soprano in a beautiful way. Unlike Make a Scene, which was recorded with a bevy of knob-twiddlers, Wanderlust is a collaboration between Ellis-Bextor and the British troubadour Ed Harcourt. A longtime pal of Ellis-Bextor’s, Harcourt’s career has been marked by smart, wry and wistful pop that reaches into folk traditions as deeply as it does end-of-the-night scenarios at the local pub. (In January, he released the six-song EP Time of Dust, a swirling collection of music that ramps up the drama to mini-maelstrom levels.) Harcourt’s aesthetic, which often recalls a collage in which the pieces of his broken heart are mixed up with slightly off-kilter pianos and his raspy burr, couldn’t be more different than the glossy motifs put forth by Ellis-Bextor’s most famous collaborators. But their songwriting aesthetics match up nicely — particularly when motifs borrowed from Eastern Europe creep in and add gravity to even the simplest lyrical declarations.

Wanderlust announces itself grandly, with the crash of a drum and string players grinding away as “Birth of an Empire” opens. She sings of love and war — the classics, you know — as the music darts around her, slurred strings echoing the yo-yoing of the heart when “something close to love/ but more mysterious” springs up between two people. The bridge charges; the drumbeats get more militaristic and a choir floats down from heaven, its urgency pointing to trouble up ahead before the song collapses in a heap, a broken-up piano chord signaling something that isn’t quite the end. This all happens in less than four minutes; the emotional rollercoaster the song (and others on the record) rides is even more impressive when you realize that, while Ellis-Bextor’s background screams “diva,” she really isn’t what you’d call a belter.

Any kitchen-sink album is prone to pitfalls, but Wanderlust puts together its many influences in a way that’s deft, almost effortless. The combination of Harcourt and Ellis-Bextor was originally supposed to last for a single song, but their collaboration bore enough fruit for a whole album. The only question is why it took so long for the two to get together: Relinquishing center stage to Ellis-Bextor has only made Harcourt’s best pop instincts shine even more brightly. The peppy opposites-attract track “The Deer & the Wolf” is one of the record’s dancier numbers; Ellis-Bextor’s vocal and the backing “ooh ooh”s, which sound like owls offering commentary on the lyrics, could easily be transformed into a radio hit a la Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” “13 Little Dolls” is nu-rockabilly that brings to mind the wonderfully strange 2013 release Here’s Willy Moon, which fused old-rock bluster and 21st-century production muscle. The grand waltz “Love is a Camera” is actually a danse macabre, telling the story of a woman whose photographic habits are more sinister than they initially let on.

Ellis-Bextor hasn’t left the idea of dancing entirely behind on Wanderlust. Not only is there the aforementioned waltz, the sort of flailing and stomping that accompanies full-bodied tracks like “Cry to the Beat of the Band” counts as dancing in quite a few corners. But on this album, she’s using those beats in a more strategic way — they did, after all, propel her around the world, and this album’s impressive utilization of influences from far-flung corners is a testament to her gratitude for being able to embark on those travels.