Keeping with the spirit of the chaos of 2020, here we have yet another excellent pop album from a somewhat unexpected source. Ellie Goulding has been absent from the music scene since 2015’s Delirium, and has since returned with a variety of interviews where she discussed the stresses of fame and feeling like a manufactured product at times. Her music, outside of a couple spectacular singles produced by the best in the business, mostly reflected that as well by following some very safe pop formulas. Now, Goulding finally returns with an album that sees her perfectly blending both songs that see her take more of a soulful, R&B-influenced approach than ever and ones that display her penchant for gargantuan pop hooks. Her slightly raspy, affectingly vulnerable and truly original singing voice has always been in high demand for samples and features, and it really shines here through a number of emotional ballads as well as Goulding discusses emerging on the other side of her stressful times in a happier place. Packaged with an EP, EG.0, that sees her tap back into her synthpop roots through an alter ego, this is a smorgasbord of all of Goulding’s strengths as she rediscovers her artistry.
The album’s appropriately titled opening track, “Start,” fades in on the crackling, filtered sound of a cheering crowd, as if to sound like an overwhelming and terrifying thing. Sparse piano keys drop in and Goulding’s smoky vocals begin seemingly calling out record executives for irreparably damaging her, celebrating a new beginning in the chorus. Featured artist serpentwithfeet adapts the same themes to talk about moving on from a toxic romantic relationship, both vocalists taking a highly free-flowing and soulful approach to the instrumental behind them while delivering some impressive vocal runs. For someone rebelling against being placed into a box, kicking off the album with such a loosely structured and experimental track that runs over five minutes – and pulling it off this well – is a huge power move for Goulding. Of course, the scores of pop DJs who wanted Goulding to sing on their tracks were onto something as well, as there aren’t many voices that can sell an intoxicating pop chorus quite this well.
The next two tracks, “Power” and “How Deep Is Too Deep” are some of the most danceable here, tapping into the current pop zeitgeist of minimalist 80s disco as Goulding reminds us what she does best. “Power” rides over an absolutely electrifying synth bassline before a shimmering chorus unexpectedly roars in that’s right in Goulding’s vocal sweet spot and creates some infectious syncopated rhythms with the instrumental. The bridge keeps up the experimental spirit by doing a complete 180 into more modern, spacey guitar-driven sound. After a bit of a disappointing anti-climax at the end of its first chorus, the second half of “How Deep Is Too Deep” contains some of the most exciting trap production I’ve ever heard in a genre I thought was completely exhausted of ways to spin it, interspersing the traditional hi-hat rolls with descending old-school drum hits as Goulding belts out the main melody. The track “Love I’m Given” is another stadium-sized anthem that raises every hair on my body when the chorus drops. Alternating between a faster-paced verse driven by some tribal drum patterns and a more straightforward chorus where Goulding just lets her voice soar as she celebrates letting love in, the track ultimately builds up to the chorus set to nothing but single claps. Goulding intersperses some vocal runs that culminate in a raspy and soulful stunning high note as everything cuts out. It’s incredibly gospel, and I can’t wait to experience it live.
The track “New Heights” is the first full-on ballad here, teaming up with one of the most prominent indie-pop producers in Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly. Over a waltz tempo as Goulding draws out her notes and cuts them off quickly as the biggest beats hit, Goulding has described the track as aiming to catch the butterflies of finding new love in a slow dance, but in this case, she’s dancing with herself as she finds a new self-love. Some of the harmonies at the end over the cascading piano keys and beautiful orchestral strings capture a show-stopping degree of musicality I never could have expected from Goulding’s earlier work, and hearing her powerful vocals sound so believable as she talks about this new self-discovery is a huge highlight as we root for her triumphant rebound. The track is followed up by a brief interlude titled “Ode To Myself,” where she acknowledges moving away from her more dependent past. “Woman” is another one with just Goulding’s voice, the piano and strings as she takes on finding her strength as a woman in a male-dominated industry with some striking and memorable melodies augmented by emotional vocal delivery. “Flux,” which Goulding names as the saddest song she’s ever written, is the final ballad on the album, another minimal track that places the spotlight on the lyrics. Goulding powerfully analyzes the dangers of being in love with the idea of someone more than the person themselves, pondering the positives and negatives of what kind of person she would be if she gave into those desires with a former partner instead of cutting it off.
“Tides” is one of the only tracks on the main album that doesn’t really measure up to the euphoric heights of the rest, but there’s still a lot of appreciation to be found in what appears to be Goulding poking a bit of fun at her former musical style. She has described intentionally putting in meaningless lyrics over a simple dance beat as she knows that sometimes people find the most meaning in the arbitrary – and yes, that’s her voice pitched down saying “take your elbows off the table” in what was apparently an improvised moment. The breathy, ethereal harmonies of the track “Bleach” are well-introduced by the Prismizer interlude “Wine Drunk,” as Goulding continues to bring these surprisingly fresh and immediately memorable melody lines even as the album progresses into its later goings. There’s so much about most of these tracks that honestly aren’t even that novel of an idea, but they are elevated to an entirely new level by Goulding’s inimitable vocals and believable emotion. The album closes out with its title track, an explosive and liberating track as Goulding tumbles into a soaring falsetto chorus with a rapidly descending melody, as if running away from her past into a perfect future. It’s the most cinematic and orchestral track here, and serves as a fantastic wrap-up of all the album’s themes.
Much like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia earlier this year, this is a stunning leap forward from a pop artist who was barely on my radar as she delivers one of the year’s best albums so far in the genre. Whatever self-searching Goulding did to move past her feeling of stasis with her past output, it certainly paid off.
Favourite Tracks: Love I’m Given, Power, Start, Woman, New Heights
Least Favourite Track: Tides