Sophie-Ellis-Bextor-Wanderlust-2013-1200x1200Oh the heady days of late 2001. The Celtic Tiger was roaring, the Irish football team was beating world class opposition and we had the likes of the lovely, young Sophie Ellis-Bextor – a poster girl for our newfound sense of social mobility – imploring us to take her home. She may have committed Murder on the Dance Floor, but she charmed her way into our charts.

Yes, there was a seemingly all-engulfing threat of terrorism befouling the sweat air, but it was mostly a time for catchy, innocent pop. The fact that the release of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Read My Lips’ was only the second most significant thing to happen in September 2001 remains a secret tragedy of Al Qaeda’s terrorism.

The last dozen years haven’t been great for many people. We’re all unemployed, in Australia and in negative equity. And may we add, you’ve aged horribly. Sophie Ellis-Bextor, meanwhile, could barely fill a lifeboat from a sinking ship on recent output alone.

It may surprise some to find out that she hasn’t been absent for too long. New album ‘Wanderlust’ is her fifth in total, and comes two and a half years after her last, 2011’s ‘Make a Scene’. The apparent problem for Ellis-Bextor is that the bubblegum pop world she inhabited gone the way of the Celtic Tiger.

The opening bars of Birth of an Empire, however, appear to show Ms Ellis-Bextor heading in a new direction. Arabian-style strings and violent piano chords open the album hundreds of miles away from cheap electronic clacks of ‘classic’ Ellis-Bextor. The chorus veers back towards the middle of the road, but the key change that comes almost three minutes in brings it back down an exciting path. Perhaps a new empire is being born.

Until the Stars Collide opens with intrigue too. It’s a song that could sit quite happily in a Bat For Lashes album, until a bland chorus again knocks a couple of points of its score. Still, an album of what we’ve seen in the opening seven minutes and we’d be quite satisfied.

It’s a shame then that by the time third song Runaway Dreamer, a breezy but forgettable ballad, starts, the best of the album has already passed. It’s only really Interlude and Cry to the Beat of the Band that come close to living up the opening one-two punch.

Interlude, as the name might suggest, is a short piece, but sounds like it could have been an emotional solo from some long-lost musical. Cry to the Beat of the Band meanwhile is a powerful number with a marching beat and excellently arranged strings and choir.

Ellis-Bextor, who co-wrote the album with Ed Hardcourt, seems to have made a conscious effort to leave the computer-generated auditory of the past behind. It’s an admirable attempt and makes ‘Wanderlust’ sound quite different to what you might expect of the Londoner. It also differentiates Ellis-Bextor from a lot of the pop faff filling the airwaves on record shop shelves.

Unwittingly though, she has thrown herself into the ring with the heavyweights of Anna Calvi and Bat for Lashes and, for all that’s good from ‘Wanderlust’, it just can’t live with the output from either of those two. Still, if Sophie Ellis-Bextor continues to move in these circles, it won’t be another 12 years before she’s relevant again.