Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s unlikely but thoroughly deserved return to prominence was one of lockdown’s more pleasing stories. Her Kitchen Disco workouts re-established her as a family-focussed pop queen, placing new emphasis on her catalogue and displaying Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s remarkable, completely distinctive voice. As lockdown has eased, this warmth has continued, across two fun pop records, each constructed with producer and collaborator Ed Harcourt. ‘HANA’ is the closing chapter in this trilogy, and it displays both the strengths and limitations of the exercise – fun, mature pop, it’s perfectly enjoyable, but at times you yearn to glimpse her edgier side.
Lyrically prompted by visits to Japan and East Asia more generally, ‘HANA’ – the title is the Japanese word for ‘blossom’ – is undoubtedly a labour of love. ‘A Thousand Orchids’ is an immersive synth pop starter, a balm for fans to ease themselves back into her world. ‘Breaking The Circle’ is a fine pop moment, the charging piano chords underpinning a brooding vocal from Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
‘Until The Wheels Off’ has a curious Springsteen feel, the wide-open palette conjuring visions of grand stadiums. ‘Everything Is Sweet’ meanwhile has a kind of Human League influence, the clipped synth melancholia tapping into a uniquely British tradition.
‘Lost In The Sunshine’ grapples with breathless euphoria, while punchy mid-album highlight ‘Beyond The Universe’ is undeniably catchy. Indeed, the songwriting is never less than stellar – ‘Reflections’ is a neat slice of late 70s disco-soul, and ‘Hearing In Colour’ builds outward into a fine sound palette.
So, why the reservation? Perhaps it’s the strength of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s recent work, but there’s a lingering feeling that she could explore something more. It’s light and open, yet at times you long to hear something a little darker, a little post-midnight. She’s the family-friendly pop queen, of course, and she’s wonderful in that role – but with such a potent voice, this album does (only at times) aim for safer waters.
But perhaps that’s churlish. ‘HANA’ is a work of love, and it continues the fine work both Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Ed Harcourt have completed together. Fine, mature pop songwriting from one of the best voices around – it’s difficult to ask for more.
Words: Robin Murray