Review Summary: Beautiful, heartfelt, fun... and highly flawed
What were you doing in March of 2020? What plans did you have, and how were they hampered? How drastically did your schedule change as a result? It’s been over three years now since the COVID-19 lockdown officially started, and – seeing as we’ve all but consigned the pandemic to the rearview – it can be easy to lose sight of just how world-changing it was at the time. Months upon months of isolation, restricted travel, and an increased sense of anxiety and depression among the public… even now, its ripples can still be felt. Need proof? Let’s observe the inspiration behind British singer-songwriter Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s new album HANA
The record’s title comes from the Japanese word for “flower” or “blossom”, owing to Ellis-Bextor’s trip to Japan… in February of 2020. See where I’m going with this? Thankfully the singer was able to make her trip, but it was right before everything went to shit – thus, she couldn’t actually release HANA
until now because of the lockdown. And while this is a fun, upbeat synthpop album, there are shades of darkness and melancholy that contrast the otherwise optimistic mood. When you’re not hearing the bouncy, carefree beats and melodies that make up its core, you’ll often be met with dramatic, sweeping arrangements that emphasize those pensive vibes I’m referring to. Hell, the record starts
with the latter! As a statement of intent, “A Thousand Orchids” is surprisingly slow and restrained; tightly coiled synth leads fly over spacious piano chords as Ellis-Bextor laments on sad goodbyes and lost beauty, laying the groundwork for a grand, majestic experience. Does the rest of HANA
deliver on this promise? Well, let’s dive deeper.
Much of Ellis-Bextor’s seventh offering is spent juggling elements of light and darkness, to varying degrees of success. Lots of major/minor-key clashes abound, ensuring that even the most lighthearted of tracks come with a certain level of edge
. “Breaking the Circle” offers more of a balance between the two sides than the opening cut did, pitting its dramatic imagery and lovely vocal harmonies over urgent percussion and jaunty piano work; it certainly serves as a more appropriate thesis for HANA
as a whole, as many of the other songs are variations on this sound. “Lost in the Sunshine”, for instance, is a tranquil little midtempo number with light touches of jazz, as Ellis-Bextor crafts an ode to good times and summer fun - even though she clearly knows these times won’t last forever. “Reflections” acts as a darker counterpoint to “Breaking the Circle”, as the same bouncy piano parts are now used to accompany a tale about a crumbling relationship, in which our narrator simply wishes to break free.
“Tokyo” is the real centerpiece of HANA
, coming at just the right time to inject some variety into the tracklist. Unlike much of what I’ve outlined thus far, what we get here is a dreamlike acoustic ballad with a slight psychedelic bent to it. It’s a welcome change of pace, and to be completely frank, HANA
really could have done with more of these detours. Keep in mind that this is a 50-minute pop record, and while one can admire its consistency, this also threatens to be its undoing. Once you get to the back half of the record, it’s clear that Ellis-Bextor is starting to run out of ideas and that the experience is largely front-loaded; the synths begin to sound the same, the beats become too repetitive, and even the introspective lyrics begin to grate after some time. This is one tracklist that could have benefitted from some editing and trimming.
Still, as yet another post-COVID musical document, HANA
manages to be pretty compelling from time to time. The concept and intent are certainly there, making the record’s execution its biggest stumbling block. If Ellis-Bextor could bring a bit more variety – as well as a shorter, more focused runtime – to the table next time, we could have a more fully-realized version of the promising material found on HANA
. But hey, on the bright side, the album does
serve as a lovely ode to Japan. I certainly can’t knock it for that.