Sophie Ellis-Bextor first came to fame fronting cerebral indie-pop also-rans TheAudience, but became a star fronting a dance record. She’s been walking the line between these two genres ever since, and to variable success. Her 2011 album, Make A Scene, contained some of her most affecting songwriting to date, but hit-chasing hookups with Armin van Buuren, The Freemasons, Calvin Harris and Junior Caldera made the record feel scattershot and uneven.
Now freed from the meddling of a major label, Wanderlust sees her abandoning the dancefloor altogether, in favour of a more organic sound inspired by, among other things, Russian folk music. She hasn’t quite gone full-on Kate Bush, but fans more familiar with her polite disco leanings may still be a little thrown by the brooding strings of opener ‘Birth of an Empire’, or the rock-infused ’13 Little Dolls’.
Lead single ‘Young Blood’ is one of the more conventional-sounding songs on the album, but also one of the prettiest things she’s ever done. The perception of Bextor as an imperious ice-maiden has never given enough credit to just how emotive her voice can actually be. It’s unquestionably a limited instrument, but there’s more poignancy to the cracks in her upper register than can be found in the melismatic wailings of many of her more showy contemporaries.
Elsewhere, the sinister waltz of ‘Love Is A Camera’ is a twisted fairytale that could have come from Luke Haines’ malevolent pop outfit Black Box Recorder, while the dreamy, slightly unsettling ‘Wrong Side of The Sun’ is worthy of soundtracking a David Lynch film. Heavy percussion and a full Bulgarian choir on ‘Cry To The Beat of the Band’ see the album reach a peak of ambition, before closing with the disarmingly tender ‘When The Storm Has Blown Over’. Needless to say, we’re a long, long way from karaoke-friendly ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ territory.
The album maintains an impressive coherence throughout, with the only major misstep being the too-chintzy ‘Runaway Dreamer’, which will give her a palatable Radio 2 single, but does a disservice to the massive artistic leap Bextor has made elsewhere. Throughout her career, Bextor has often struggled to produce material that’s as distinctive as her voice. In that sense, Wanderlust feels like an arrival, and potentially the most important album of her career. If she can resist the temptation to play safe and continue following her muse down unexpected pathways, it could be the start of something special.