by NICK BUCHANAN
Ellie Goulding has made a mistake: she revealed her intentions for a full-fledged pop invasion and her passion for pop and electronic music.
In a world where the standard for quality music is often forcefully determined by old fogies and hipsters in front cameras with thick-rimmed glasses and distinguished aural palates who think anything short of moaning indie static is unsatisfactory, an affiliation with Top 40 radio is often looked upon with an eye roll or a look of disgust – even more so when an artist is particularly passionate about being part of the mega-pop gang. So when Ellie Goulding announced her third full-length album, Delirium, to be an experimental attempt at crafting a "big pop album," a large digital moan was nearly audible from one half of the Internet – the half that is still grumbling about wanting "old Ellie" back, that is.
By "old Ellie," they're talking about the timid, doe-eyed girl who splashed onto the scene in 2010, winning that year's BBC Sound of... poll and coveted Brit Critics' Choice award. In other words, the original archetype of Ellie that has been all but a memory for a while now. Acoustic guitars and tinny electronics coexisted to form the Internet-generated, fictional genre of folktronica on her debut, Lights, but they were swiftly abandoned in favor of the layers of tangled vocal samples, drum machines, and synthesizers courtesy of Jim Eliot on her sophomore attempt, the glimmering, sentimental Halcyon.
For her third full-length outing, she's done equivocating her position as a chart-dominating hopeful. The acoustic guitars of her early days are revived for a few tracks, usually digitally contorted and encased in a shell of larger-than-life production from the best of the best in the pop industry: Max Martin (the chameleonic wizard of pop music with over two decades of experience) and Greg Kurstin (the right hand man to Sia, Kelly Clarkson, Tegan and Sara, and Lily Allen, among others), who collectively produced 11 of the standard pressing's 16 tracks. (And yes, you read that correctly: the album brings a new definition to the term 'long play' with its 16 standard tracks. Some variants of its deluxe edition span 25 tracks.)
Vocally, this is arguably the most "Ellie" album of them all. The vocal differences between the live performances and studio tracks from this album, unlike most Lights era tracks, are unnoticeable. While her voice is often double-tracked and layered over the intensive beats, its quality isn't tampered with or compromised. She boasts her voice this time around, both through song (check "Intro (Delirium)" in particular, in which she throws her voice into full-on operatic operation) and through interviews ("I think my voice is something untouchable, but I think me as a person is not. No one else will ever have my voice."), giving her a stronger tone and live stamina than ever before. However, her voice may be the only element of these tracks that is not foolproof; instead of continuing to adapt that sort of smoky, sort of airy, sort of ethereal voice of hers into a more palatable format for all, Goulding and her producers have accepted the polarizing effect of her voice. Some love it, some hate it; you can't win 'em all.
As promised, this is also her most intensive pop album to date. The production of lead single "On My Mind" is par for the Delirium course: effective utilization of repetition and drum-heavy, synthesized backdrops that pulsate with enough energy to wake the dead. From "Aftertaste," a tropical-fringed embrace of a break-up, to "Codes," another Max Martin-assisted gem, the album consistently bounces in a state of ecstasy. The club-ready "Something in the Way You Move" may be the most energized track, but "Around U" is a close second, with its peppy double-time beat and a twinkling, Kimbra-esque chorus. Sultrier offerings "Don't Need Nobody" and "Keep on Dancin'" both chase club trends in their own ways – the former with its PBR&B automated drums and thick, DJ Snake-inspired chorus, and the latter with a whistle chorus over stabbing synth hits – but still don't lose touch with the rest of the album.
Every song either starts and finishes in overdrive, or gradually builds itself up to that point; even the slowest trackss conclude in explosive ways. So although it's easily the album's slowest-burning moment, Fifty Shades of Grey track "Love Me Like You Do" sits somewhat comfortably in the track listing. Even the album's most personal touches are topped off with sparkly electronic finishes and drum-kicks that gives them the vitality of a minor sugar rush: "Lost & Found" sits atop an acoustic base with the sound and fluffy lyrics of the Lights era, a strong ballad is cloaked under a clean-cut club format on the poetically-tongued "Devotion," and "Scream It Out" closes the album with a certain vulnerability that echoes that of Halcyon.
So what has this album taught us? Being seriously passionate about pop music is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when you're pretty great at making it. Goulding set out to make a pop album that is quality, spirited, and fulfilling, and that is exactly what she did: the album embodies the idea that fun, straightforward, love-oriented pop songs do not have to be chintzy. The few truly personal moments ("Army," "Aftertaste," "Scream It Out") are trumped by distinctive vocal acrobatics, feel-good melodies, and enveloping soundscapes ("Something in the Way You Move," "Codes," "We Can't Move to This"), but that isn't necessarily a problem. We already know that she can write songs that tug at the heartstrings, so there's no foul in letting her revel in her most carefree setting to date. It may not be her most intimate affair, but it's definitely her most ear-catching by a long shot. The album grabs listeners just 30 seconds in, takes them on an hour-long, sugar-coated trip, and releases them from its grip with blurry, yet warm, recollections of the euphoric state they were just encapsulated in – but who wouldn't want to be a victim to this state of Delirium? (★★★★½ out of 5)
Delirium is available now under Interscope Records and Cherrytree Records. Exclusive deluxe pressings are available at Target department stores.
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