In ‘Delirium’, Ellie Goulding Becomes the Pop Star She Was Born to Be
Ellie Goulding is now a proper pop star.
Make no mistake: She's always been a pop star, really. Not a traditional pop star, like a Rihanna, a Taylor or a Katy. She doesn't do choreography, nor does she wear particularly provocative outfits or fill the stage with elaborate props. Her fluttering, ethereal vocal styling is also entirely unique, often proving divisive to the general public.
Instead, it's Ellie's ongoing love affair with all things electronica and a knack for penning undeniable hooks — ones that feel slightly against-the-grain, yet accessible enough to squeeze through Top 40 radio's narrow entryway — that puts her in the same category, or at least directly adjacent to, her contemporaries.
And this time around, Ellie is wholeheartedly embracing the title.
Six years ago, just before being crowned as the BBC's Sound Of 2010, the singer stood bright-eyed and terrified in a hoodie, nervously drumming along to her Lights lead single, "Under The Sheets" — still one of her best songs, for the record — on Later...with Jools Holland. In a few months, she'll be headlining an arena tour across North America. If anyone is a shining example of persistence paying off, it's Ellie.
2012's Halcyon, and its repackaging a year later (Halcyon Days) pushed the singer-songwriter into bolder sonic territory, including "Figure 8" and her swelling lead single "Anything Could Happen," which was only made even more massive thanks to a glittery cover by Fifth Harmony on X Factor USA, a performance that largely cemented themselves as the competition's standouts. (You can thank Ellie for that, Harmonizers.)
After the success of Halcyon Days, a string of winning dance floor collaborations with the likes of Calvin Harris and Major Lazer, as well as the accidentally huge success of her Fifty Shades Of Grey theme, the almighty, Max Martin-produced mega-ballad "Love Me Like You Do," Ellie decided to embrace her consistent position resting atop the charts worldwide and simply go for it with her third studio album, Delirium, out today (Nov. 6).
"A part of me views this album as an experiment - to make a big pop album. I made a conscious decision that I wanted it to be on another level," she explained when Delirium was first announced in September.
To go big, she took no chances in terms of production: While her 2010 debut effort was largely helmed entirely at a home studio with one producer (Starsmith) and a majority of Halycon recorded with Kish Mauve's Jim Eliot, Delirium sees Ellie feeling her pop fantasy with pop powerhouse Greg Kurstin (responsible for Halcyon Days hits, "Burn" and "Goodness Gracious") and a collection of Sweden's finest, including Max Martin, Klas Åhlund, Savan Kotecha and Carl Falk.
"On My Mind," the album's lead single, ticked off all the boxes as a proper pop star: Kicking off with an oh-so-RiRi "Eh!" the fiery Max Martin production supplied an almost irritatingly catchy staccato stab of a chorus ("Why-I-got-chu-on-mah-mi-ind!"), a glossy video and, for perhaps the first time in her career, a newfound public interest in her personal life, Taylor Swift style. (The lyrics happen to work suspiciously well as a response to Ed Sheeran's "Don't," rumored to be about a hotel encounter with Goulding.)
Despite the frazzled frustration of its lead single, Ellie's Delirium is a byproduct of romantic euphoria. And, for the most part, she's never sounded quite so head-over-heels.
The album overflows with breathy swooning, from the Greg Kurstin-produced stomper "Something In The Way You Move" to "Love Me Like You Do" to "Around U," reportedly written about her hot boyfriend, McFly's Dougie Poynter. The Charli XCX-ish uptempo bop sees the singer getting flat-out cheesy...but, y'know, in a cute way. "When I look into your eyes / Boy, I'm feeling delirious / But you know this is serious, I'm sticking to you like glue, like glue, oo-oo-OO-oo!" she woozily coos.
Even when hitting the rocks in a relationship, she's keeping things optimistic: "Don't Panic," a shimmering, vaguely '80s-tinged Greg Kurstin-helmed highlight, sees Ellie reassuring above dreamy synth-pop pulsations: "Why you wanna ruin a good thing? Can't we take it back to the start? / When love's not playing out like the movies / It doesn't mean it's falling apart." Sage words and sweet beats? Crisis averted.
It's not always romantic love: "Army," one of the album's few slower moments, is a sweet, straightforward love letter penned to her best friend that overflows with gratitude: "16 and you never even judged me / Matter of fact I always thought you were too cool for me / Sitting there in the caravan / All the nights we've been drunk on the floor / And yet you understand." It's a universal "thank you" — one that'll no doubt go down big in a light-filled arena when she heads out on the road next year.
If there's a downside to her shift into full-on pop star mode with all these collaborators, it's the occasional dulling of the signature Goulding-isms that made the singer who she is today, pretty much exactly in the same way that The Weeknd made his Max Martin-assisted mainstream transition this year.
While the lyricism remains mostly unchanged, some of the production causes the music to feel a little more anonymous, like "Codes," which might as well have been on Cher Lloyd's last album. Other songs all but overpower Ellie entirely, as with "We Can't Move To This," which seemingly interpolates 112's "It's Over Now" in the chorus and marches through the speakers like a cacophonous parade. Then there are times when it feels as though we're hearing an entirely new act altogether, as with the fierce "Don't Need Nobody," which is, shockingly, a co-write by The Cardigans' Peter Svensson. Ellie sexily saunters across finger snaps, hints of trap and early '90s club beats that wouldn't sound out of place on a Tinashe record before diving into a jarringly aggressive chorus: "I don't need nobody, need nobody, need nobody...but you," she purrs.
The occasional diversions from the Ellie sound we already know isn't necessarily a bad thing, considering none of these songs are bad (they're excellent, in fact!) — just an inevitable symptom of bringing a bunch of new cooks into the kitchen. Besides, reinvention is a virtue of pop royalty: Just ask Madonna. (And if you really want a shock to the system, try the balls-to-the-wall bonkers deluxe track, "I Do What I Love.")
Luckily, there are plenty of shimmers of early Goulding that ought to appeal to fans from the get-go, as on "Lost And Found," a nostalgic slow-build of a stomper that seemingly provides a lyrical nod to her introspective, electro-folk inflected Lights era gem, "Wish I Stayed." It's the moment that feels perhaps most true to Ellie's roots — and with that crashing beat breakdown, it still appeals to her arena-filling superstar status today.
For the most part, Ellie's allowed herself to let go, push away form the familiar and trust in her collaborators in what is undeniably her most ambitious effort yet.
The seductive, whistle-filled "Keep On Dancin'," co-penned by Nicole Morier and Ryan Tedder, is a total pop curiosity, and perhaps the most intriguing thing to come from all parties involved in some time. "You can hurt me / I'll find another / You can love me / You'll be my lover," she shrugs in an ode to living life unbothered. (You can always count on Morier to get our pop princesses involved in pop oddities — she previously had a hand in Britney's "Heaven On Earth" and "How I Roll.")
The Klas Ahlund and Ali Payami co-helmed "Devotion," written with Wrabel, is another hypnotic highlight, like a strange robo-folk hybrid that sees Ellie falling deeply, obsessively in love, complete with a guitar-led "anti-chorus," shuffling beats and a chilly vocoder that renders Ellie into a lusty cyborg ("Devotion, devotion, devotion"). It's mad genius.
While the songs themselves are largely unexpected, it's not at all a surprise that Delirium is one of the year's stronger pop efforts: Ellie's been banging out big tunes by herself from the beginning. This time around, she just happens to have some of the world's biggest producers by her side — and an even stronger sense of self.
"Those people are the ones who understood how I had got to this point through my music and genuinely helped me see what I was capable of as an artist at this point," Ellie explained in a letter to fans published today. "Sometimes I doubt my abilities (even after everything) and I needed that push. I'm not going to over analyse it, not going to overthink it, all I know is that this album is everything to me and is as much about the future of me as it is the past - I revisit as much as I leave behind."
It's fitting that the final song (on the standard edition, anyway) is the album's lone reunion with Halcyon producer Jim Eliot, "Scream It Out," a warm bid farewell to her past and a fateful step toward the future: "I think I'll let fate just take me home," she sings. "I've always had a thing for silence / But lately, I just need a voice I recognize."
Thanks to Delirium, that voice is about to become even more recognizable.