A folktronica artist who pivoted to mainstream pop, Ellie Goulding stumbled upon longevity in the 2010s with one fluke hit after another. Both “Lights” and “Burn” began as bonus tracks from modestly performing albums (2010’s Lights and 2012’s underrated Halcyon, respectively) before gradually crossing over. “Love Me Like You Do,” a one-off from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack that she didn’t even write, achieved nearly a billion Spotify plays—but the subsequent album, 2015’s Delirium, yielded only one outright hit. Its formulaic songs rarely took advantage of Goulding’s malleable, oft-sampled warble, leaving her with a distinctive voice in only the most literal sense. A half-decade of EDM collaborations and false starts later, Goulding returns with Brightest Blue, an album about taking control of her life and identity—with a few proven hits tacked onto a bonus EP billed as Side 2. Pop music hasn’t been fun for some time, so a quieter record makes sense commercially as well as spiritually. But Brightest Blue has a unique problem: Its suffocating production undermines the more grounded lyrics.
If Goulding intended to make an introspective record, that’s not what’s happening musically. This is a crowded, obscenely expensive-sounding album. Though the crew is small by pop standards (including previous collaborators Jim Eliot and Joe Kearns), multiple songs feature real orchestras and real choirs competing with synthetic orchestras and Goulding’s own multi-tracked vocals. This isn’t always a bad thing; “Love I’m Given” updates the post-Adele songs from 2012’s Halcyon, even mimicking the looped vocal riff from “Only You.” But after five or six other electronic-gospel hybrids, the title track doesn’t stand out. When “Tides” breaks through the monotony, the skittering, trebly production feels too small to compete against the surrounding density.
Beneath that density, there are genuine strides. “Woman” works by focusing on Goulding herself and how she’s grown, rather speaking for everyone else. It’s hard to hear over the Inspiring, Motivational string arrangement and the Pasek-and-Paul chorus, but there are lovely sentiments about aging in public: “Free-falling through the photographs that paid my bills” might be the most evocative line on any Goulding album. On “How Deep Is Too Deep,” a clear standout, she sneaks in some unconventional but welcome metaphors: “You cast me in your thriller just to cut the scene out,” and, “You wanna wash me off but you want me as your tattoo.”
That kind of emotional depth feels like a necessary correction from Delirium, but while Blue is thoughtful and beautiful, it’s a drag to sit through. The interludes have more personality than the full-length songs; the hyper-processed sketch “Wine Drunk” is more memorable than “Bleach,” the song it precedes. Serpentwithfeet’s verbose opening stanza on “Start” offers the kind of quirkiness missing elsewhere: “Every summer my friends prevent me from using the grill/They believe Cancer men don’t have the will/To play with fire.” The other collaborations, concentrated on Side B, can’t match the album’s soul-searching. Goulding gives as much as she can when her duet partners are pop sadboi Lauv and veteran edgelord blackbear, but without the insight of the proper album, all that’s left is underwritten background music. These songs aren’t actively bad, but their trend-chasing is distracting, and a collaboration with the late Juice WRLD makes for an oddly melancholic closer. Continuing the contradictory streak of Goulding’s career, Brightest Blue’s often compelling narrative of self-assurance still ends with an identity crisis.
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