Sophie Ellis-Bextor is no stranger to reinvention. The noughties pop star is best known for rocketing onto the scene with Murder on the Dancefloor, the most played song in Europe in 2002, as well as contributing vocals to dance hit Groovejet by Italian DJ Spiller. However, the last decade saw her expand from the disco-pop sound to explore wider territory, from orchestral folk in Wanderlust to a Latin influence in Familia. During the pandemic, Ellis-Bextor revisited disco in a series of weekly “Kitchen Disco” performances live-streamed to her Instagram, a format so popular that it inspired a tour of the same name. Her new album HANA, created alongside long-time collaborator Ed Harcourt, feels consistent with this revival, though it’s disco elements are often stripped down to their barest components. The album’s concept was inspired by a trip to Japan before the pandemic, with the title coming from the Japanese word for “flower”. While there isn’t a distinctly Japanese influence in the music itself, Japan becomes an object of nostalgia for Ellis-Bextor that shape’s the album’s sound and lyrics.
The album begins with a swirling synth loop in A Thousand Orchids, which unfurls into a cinematic soundscape as Ellis-Bextor sings about the power of memories: “The bеauty we’ve lost, it stays etеrnal in our minds.” It’s the most atmospheric song on the record but for the most part it’s an outlier in this regard, followed by the explosive pop of Breaking The Circle. Released as the album’s first single, it’s a disco crowd-pleaser driven by bouncy piano house chords, in which she travels “into the light of the great unknown”. The dancefloor ecstasy is also found on Reflections, an infectious, ABBA-esque song that addresses the passage of time itself: “There you go, you’re a thief in plain sight.”
The emotional centrepiece is Until The Wheels Fall Off, inspired by letters sent by her late stepdad to her mum while travelling. Backed by a driving “krautrock” beat, Ellis-Bextor describes a love so powerful that it perseveres through all of life’s highs and lows. On Tokyo, a tender ballad that was the first song written after her trip to Japan, she describes the “beauty here, beside machines”. As well as being one of the few moments that directly refers to the trip that so profoundly effected Ellis-Bextor, it also perfectly fits the overarching theme of nostalgia with its diaristic lyrics and dreamlike instrumentation.
HANA doesn’t contain the pure disco dopamine found in her early work, but it fits neatly into her ever-evolving and maturing discography. She uses disco elements (from throbbing synths to four-on-the-floor beats) selectively to create a feeling of nostalgia. Conceived during the pandemic when Ellis-Bextor escaped into her memories when she couldn’t physically travel the world, HANA emulates this experience and provides a musical elysium we can escape into during hard times.