New artist of the month – Eliot Sumner

Our resident new music expert Ian Macdonald returns with January’s new artist of the month – Eliot Sumner. Ian writes

Hello again. You might remember me from Mark’s blog last summer. I wrote a review of the rather Talking-Heads-esque sophomore album from LA’s De-Lux. Liked it? Good. Keep reading. Not so much? Oh well … Best out of twelve?
I’ll be contributing a monthly column for 2016 about my recommendations from the endless myriad of sounds available to our ears in this digital age; bamboozling amounts in fact. Scary isn’t it? Don’t worry that’s why you’re reading this.
Ok before I talk about the album I picked for this month, a little about me and why it is that I have the nerve to write my opinions about music on the internet? Well it’s simply because music is about sharing experiences. The wonderful experiences you have when listening to music. As I do a lot of travelling, I listen to a lot of different music every day and about 2 years ago I started a new music playlist, curating a seemingly never ending odyssey of new track discovery; which I have been adding to and sharing ever since. Oh and several years as an occasional freelance music journalist for magazines and newspapers (remember them?)

The particular artist I’ve chosen to write about today has been on my radar for just over twelve months, when I first heard the (now) title track of the new album ‘Information’ – released 22nd January. An accessible piece of driving synth-rock melodrama, it soars in its majesty yet is contrastingly reflective on the human need for emotional security which comes from our craving for knowledge, to better understand ourselves as people following a break up.

So who is Eliot Sumner and why does the voice and name have a familial tone to it? Named after the poet TS Eliot and the child of Sting (Gordon Sumner) and actress Trudie Styler, Eliot began to play and write music from an early age and with both parents’ encouragement quickly developed multi-instrumental skills; jamming and later gigging with other musician friends. After signing to Island records aged 17 under the name ‘I Blame Coco’, Sumner and band released a very synth heavy debut ”The Constant’ in 2010 at the label’s request in order to capitalise on the erstwhile electropop explosion into the mainstream charts. Whilst enjoying minor success in terms of album and single saIes, the band were unhappy with the musical direction they were headed and decided to take some time to find their sound .
Tracks starting appearing on social media and streaming sites sporadically throughout 2014 and 2015 under Eliot’s own name and evoking a darker more guitar-driven krautrock sound yet retaining the Teutonic inspired early 80s synth pop. Euphoric and epic in stature and with consistent themes of self-discovery and emotional honesty and retrogressive reflection.
This is very evident on the radio friendly ‘After Dark’ – a kaleidoscopic feast of synth arpeggios and vocal acrobatics which playfully dance around minor key guitar chords akin to an exhausting but exhilarating merry go round. Ironic given Eliot’s observations of a world weak with the desire for unmoderated overindulgence.

Speaking to AXS, Eliot explained the reason for the change was because “… we started to listen to a lot of industrial German music. We felt like we needed to give the whole album a heartbeat. I think this is really a ‘driving’ album, to be listened to when you are in a car. That motorik beat really works for me. I think there’s a lot of energy that it brings to the album”
Whilst much of the album is in unapologetically uptempo, the sombre ‘Dead Arms & Dead Legs’ is Eliot’s favourite track from ‘Information’ and one of the first tracks written during this adjustment period. Describing the emotional impact of “walking through something and robotically making decisions”, it begins with a simple melancholic piano chord line underneath Eliot’s androgynous alto and over an increasingly nervous mantra of biscuit tin drums, the track slowly builds to a percussion crashing, key hammering crescendo of heart-pumping world-weary angst. It featured prominently in an episode of the hit US TV series ‘The Blacklist’ in 2015.

Although exploring the abstract themes of living in the 21st century zeitgeist is part of the album’s makeup, it is apparent that writing about her own experiences and drawing the strands together comes naturally to Eliot. Although genetically born a woman, Eliot self-identifies now as non-binary and sexually fluid after struggling since an early age with society’s propensity for labelling and categorising. In ‘Species’ the complexity of gender and sexuality themes are reflected on with an emotional honesty and vulnerability that is drawn from those personal experiences of feeling isolation and alienation.
“Find me a definition / Or render me unknown / I have modern specifications / They’re not sure about the species / They’re not sure about the gender / They’re not sure about the free …”

On the glam electro-stomp of ‘Halfway to Hell’ Eliot further ruminates on her journey of self discovery and the defiant yearning for the strength that comes from not having to face challenges alone.
“When you’re halfway to hell / There’s a distance left to roam / And you know it can’t be done by yourself / When you’re halfway to hell / You could just keep on running / Or turn around and face youself”
Exploring the full cacophony of raw human feelings sometimes leads to darker moments of stark reveal. ‘I followed you home’ catalogues the crushingly overwhelming power of obsession; flitting from exhilarating epiphany one moment to devastating realisation the next.

As a perfectly functional and respectable homage to brooding 80s alternative pop, it’s worth a listen for sure. As an emotionally cathartic self portrait of an artist who has made peace with and defiantly embraced her demons, ‘Information’ is a histrionic and confident return from the wilderness after 6 years.
Ian Macdonald
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