Album Review: Ellie Bleach – Now Leaving West Feldwood EP

[Sad Club; 2024]

Don’t bother trying to look up West Feldwood on a map, as you’ll have no search results returned to you. The town is in fact a fictional creation by London musician Ellie Bleach, the doomed fictional setting for her new EP that’s conceptually somewhere between Essex and Nevada. Across the six tracks of Now Leaving West Feldwood, Bleach offers the perspective of different characters residing there, all of them edging up to their demise in one way or another. A burnt out star, a bored housewife, a scorned spouse, a doomsday prepper; Now Leaving West Feldwood has Bleach once again showing off her skills of writing nuanced and layered characters, this time placing them in the same vicinity as they skirt around their (and the town’s) eventual end.

In her head, all the characters Bleach sings about exist in the same universe, and West Feldwood is the natural progression of her songwriting. She spills descriptions of the town into her songs here, softly painting landscapes and detailing features – a strip mall, the baking desert-hot sun, winding roads out of the town – but the overcast looming feeling of dread is what colours the EP. Evoking Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, “Lakehouse” sweeps by on a sweet and light lapsteel, but it’s hiding a sinister edge as a wife reckons with the rift between her and her husband. “You must think I’m pretty stupid / It’s dangerous in the country darling / Keep your eyes on the road,” Bleach slyly sings, a noirish threat in her voice. Come “Whole Lotta Nothing” (set in West Feldwood’s Limelight Motel) we meet a woman reckoning with the dark empty abyss within her, singing blankly like some update on the jazz classic “One For My Baby.” A doomsday planner on opening track “Pamela” might be readying themselves for the end, but on “Whole Lotta Nothing” it sounds like the engulfing end has already arrived.

Musically West Feldwood flaunts a more elaborate range of features than 2022’s No Elegant Way To Sell Out. While Bleach’s tracks over the past few years have never been shy of baroque features (see the harpsichord on 2020’s “He Bought Me Nikes”), here she delves further still, expanding the cast which allows her to create more vivid and larger landscapes. “That’ll Show ‘Em” is adorned with oaky clarinets and wistful sax that mingle over woozy piano chords narrating a burnt out star wrestling with disappointment; aforementioned “Whole Lotta Nothing” has its blankness punctuated by a desolate sax solo and creaky strings; and the brief final title track paints a desolate scene, Bleach adorning herself with strings before they tease a descent into a discordant mire. Nothing feels out of place though. This is Bleach taking strides forward instead of steps sideways, growing with her concepts instead of letting them outgrow her.

There isn’t a bonafide hit like “Doing Really Well Thanks” this time round; West Feldwood is more the sinking in kind of listen, a short apocalyptic soap opera to dive into and explore. Dramatic twists and turns ensue as a bored housewife on “Hottest Man Alive 1995” threatens to burn down a strip mall if her celebrity obsession doesn’t reciprocate their love, or as neighbours gossip about the titular “Pamela” as she readies a bunker for just herself. And that’s also not to say there aren’t hooks here. “Pamela” is one of Bleach’s most infectious earworms to date, “Lakehouse”’s lines are delivered with a biting allure not far from that of Faye Webster, and “Whole Lotta Nothing” swirls you into its despair like a black hole. An Ellie Bleach song can lodge itself into your mind through delivery alone, as evidenced by gems like “Some people think the lonely will settle for anyone / But if they got to know me I’m as picky as they come.”

Bleach’s strength is that her characters feel more than just 2D snaps from magazines or half-formed names made for the purpose of a refrain. She’s never afraid to pick up the rocks to uncover all the writhing, gruesome happenings underneath – in fact it’s where West Feldwood shows its best hands. On “Whole Lotta Nothing” we touch upon dated female beauty expectations, convincing the character that their male-centred destiny won’t manifest if they “leave the house without looking splendid.” Elsewhere on “That’ll Show ‘Em” we get a brief glimpse into the tipping point of a breakdown while “Lakehouse” details all the evidence of an adulterous husband like a case being built to present in court.  

It’s little surprise that Bleach takes inspiration from the film and literature world, as her songs sound like excerpts from screenplays and novels one imagines are piled by her bedside. (She even has a “Ellie Bleach-core” Letterboxd list, which feels like a welcome additional reading list to enjoy alongside her music. That Todd Solondz’s film Happiness is an inspiration is no surprise.) As she progresses and grows, it feels like she’s setting herself up for a widescreen excursion in the years ahead. What form that materialises in is for the future to know, but for now we have a trip through West Feldwood. It may not be a real place (and it may be decimated in an industrial accident in the end) but Bleach does what she does best with all her characters: she brings it to life, even if just for a short time during the ride through the ruins.