Ellie Goulding’s latest sees her transition from pure chart persona to an assured pop artist.
In the five years since her last album, the excellent Delirium, Ellie Goulding’s position in the pop music stratosphere has remained anomalous and nebulous. The album’s biggest hit, “Love Me Like You Do,” didn’t drum up streams for any of its other songs as much as it did the memory of one of the year’s biggest (and most widely ridiculed) motion pictures, for which it was written. The song, a collaboration between multiple songwriters and producers (not including Goulding), is spectacular, but it doesn’t reflect much on Goulding as an artist. Despite its inability to produce any other major hits, the album itself actually does — exuberantly so.
Brightest Blue, Goulding’s latest record, seems to consciously distinguish between her abilities as a singer-songwriter and her place in the hit-making cycle. Though billed as a double album, the record’s second disc is only a short collection of collaborative singles from the past three years; the majority of the first disc is written by Goulding and a consistent group of collaborators, and has virtually no features (the otherwise pleasant opener “Start” includes a verse from serpentwithfeet which is best forgotten). Offering some of the singer’s most thematically focused songwriting to date, the album is an assortment of variations on the now ubiquitous pop music theme of self-love (especially as a contrast to unfulfilling relationships), treated to melodies that are by turns depressed and animated. This thematic focus, carried through the album by the singer’s uniquely fragile sounding voice, ties the record together remarkably well against a good deal of stylistic variance. From soulful cuts like “How Deep is Too Deep,” “Love I’m Given,” and “Power” to the balladry of “Woman” and “Flux,” the strength of Goulding’s delivery accentuates the honesty in the lyrics, while also elevating the sometimes-fragmentary combination of genres into coruscating reflections on emotional turmoil. Taken song-for-song, the most stylistically distinct song is easily the biggest highlight: “Tides” gradually builds from the repetition of a single piano note and sub-bass to the chorus’ double layer of vocal loops and massive drums which back a smooth refrain about the extraordinary highs of a new relationship. Much like the very best songs in the singer’s catalog, the ephemeral metaphors incorporate the emotional totality of their real-life referents — the central analogy likens giving oneself over to emotion as “going against the tide,” condensing the internal contradictions in pop music’s ongoing negotiation of self-awareness and romantic idealism. Taking the first disc on its own, Brightest Blue may be Goulding’s strongest use of the album format, deepening the sometimes undeniable poeticism introduced on her debut album (though it may have been overshadowed for many by the nature of that record’s marketing). Ten years into her career, the singer finally has the space to develop an identity outside her chart presence, resulting in one of the year’s most assured pop releases.
Published as part of Pop Rocks | Q3 2020 Issue – Part 1.