Ellie Goulding Sings Songs of Introspection on ‘Brightest Blue’
English singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding got off to a strong start, with her first album, 2010’s “Lights,” debuting at number one in the UK. The title track was an ubiquitous hit, and a defining song of the decade. It has been five years since she released her last record, “Delirium,” now Goulding returns with a double album that is her most ambitious yet. “Brightest Blue” is a collection of songs about personal fulfillment, ranging from bangers to ballads, while the B side, “EG.0,” is a set of collaborative works that pair Goulding with diverse artists for catchy results.
On the opener, “Start,” Goulding promptly makes the music her own, with a voice that can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. The crisp, streamlined quality of the track fits the central sentiment of a new beginning. Pitched-down vocals in the chorus ground the track in a distinctly UK sonic sphere, although featured guest serpentwithfeet riffs off Goulding’s inflections, and expands the song into a broader avenue. Then, “Power” strikes with a beaming chorus, and captures Goulding in full pop precision, as she narrates a power struggle, with gospel choirs chiming in on the titular word. “How Deep Is Too Deep” explores the search for deeper meaning in a relationship, with a cheeky assertiveness in Goulding’s voice, punctuated by vocal bits that test the waters by pitching down.
The spoken word “Cyan” is a moment of introspection that builds up to the banger “Love I’m Given,” which brings the return of gospel choirs, an emphatic vocal from Goulding that spurs them on, and another memorable chorus that plays to her vocal attributes, airtight and punchy. On “New Heights,” Goulding assumes new proportions, with a swaying backdrop of luscious strings and sepia soul texture. While the track does indeed find her soaring to new heights, recognizing her own value, there’s a certain rigidity to her presentation that becomes more noticeable on an effusive instrumental than in a streamlined pop package. Goulding sings in constrained motions, which have an elegance to them, but can seem to fall a bit short when placed over sprawling backdrops. On “Ode to Myself,” which expands on the same sentiment, her melodies zigzag without the most commanding conviction. On the other hand, there’s an airy quality to her voice that fills out the space gracefully. Sappy sentimentality reaches an apex on “Woman,” in which Goulding decries sexism with a Disney singsong that builds to a climactic line in a demonstration of unabashed cliche. “Tides” gets more upbeat, and finds Goulding gaining new confidence, but still has an inhibited quality to its sound.
“Wine Drunk” finds Goulding soaked in vocal processing for a few colorful, elemental moments, blissfully altered. Then, on “Bleach,” she settles into a mellow groove over beachy guitars that give way to light EDM flourishes. She sings about the inability to forget about someone, but does it with an ease that suggests indulging the memory. “Flux” returns to sweeping balladry, and Goulding is at her most effortlessly expressive, singing “Still in love with the idea of loving you,” as florid strings envelop her. Then, on the title track, she puts on an especially impressive performance, with a bridge of rapid, cascading, descending melodies that build into a triumphant envisioning of the “brightest blue.”
This moment of articulate inspiration is embellished in an overture of cinematic grandeur, which begins the shorter but eventful B side of the record. Strings and soaring choirs tease a melody that is fully fleshed out on the following track, “Worry About Me,” with a feature from Blackbear, whose fluid melodism adds a new soulful dimension to Goulding’s contributions. This begins a stretch of high profile collaborations. “Slow Grenade” is a catchy, glib duet with Lauv. The Diplo-produced “Close to Me” might boast the album’s most epic tune in its chorus, and features the mellifluous voice of Swae Lee, along with bits that could be lifted from Britpop sensation Suede’s 1993 single “Animal Nitrate.” Finally, “Hate Me” pairs Goulding up with the late emo rap poster child Juice WRLD. The two tease one another, “Hate me, hate me, tell me how you hate me” to an effervescent tune that ends the album on an infectious note.
Altogether, “Brightest Blue” is an ambitious artistic statement that reflects Goulding’s depth and range, and showcases her pop poise. The double album offers a balanced mix of buoyant, upbeat pop and string-laden piano ballads that demonstrate a raw vulnerability and document personal growth, with songs that find Goulding moving beyond unsatisfying relationships and turning inward, approaching a certain enlightenment that reaches its peak in the utopia of the title track. Goulding has a distinctive, alluring voice, and her latest songs capture it with all its flair, in beaming choruses.
“Brightest Blue” is available July 17 on Apple Music.