It’s over a decade since Ellie Goulding topped the annual BBC Sound Of… poll and was adorned with the Critics’ Choice award at the Brits. Working with Starsmith, she released her debut album Lights in 2010 and lit up both sides of the Atlantic with her husky timbre and folky brand of electropop. Her single Lights remains Goulding’s biggest selling song in the US, while the UK lapped up her lachrymose cover of Elton John‘s Your Song, as featured in a John Lewis Christmas ad.
There have since been two more albums from Goulding, the dramatic Halcyon and the nuanced Delirium. These have been punctuated with a smattering of soundtrack appearances, thumping high-profile collaborations and countless digs at Goulding’s private life, perhaps spurred on by Ed Sheeran‘s negative diatribe Don’t, purported to be about him and Goulding.
What has always set Goulding apart from her peers is that she has the sanguine lyrical sensibility of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush and can fuse this with the production smarts and hit-making abilities of her contemporaries like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. On her fourth album Brightest Blue, Goulding has allowed both alts to co-exist, as Side A listens more personal and vulnerable, whereas side B, named EG.0, allows the pop goddess within to let rip.
Side A begins strongly with – what else? – Start, as some tender ivory tickling morphs into a gorgeous mid-tempo R&B ballad. It sports bittersweet and knowing lyrical flourishes, complemented with a beautiful section from serpentwithfeet as the track weaves into a celestial electropop plot twist. The fires begin to crackle with the elaborate Power, a kind of deconstructed Donna Summer‘s State Of Independence with ’80s shades and synth claps building into a truly stellar chorus. As side A unfolds, you get the sense that Goulding is not only cleaning house, but she has learned tremendously, embraced her past and also herself and how she has grown.
This is highlighted on the divine and retro Love I’m Given, with Goulding powering-up herself vocally, as she conveys the important messages of empowerment, acceptance and realisation. She is also keen to channel positive self-affirmations. Ode To Myself is soft and sweeping in its self-evidence, while Woman is a poignant ballad with Starsmith on production, acutely channelling the starry-eyed innocence of her first album and a canny lyrical juxtaposition now that Goulding is now all grown up. As side A comes to a close, the acoustic yet caustic Bleach blends neatly into Flux, all affecting and piano-led with beautiful lyrical storytelling, before ending with the title track. It melds all of side A together with its elements of gospel, R&B synth and tonal shifting with some euphoric vocal and lyrical touches.
EG.0 unfolds with the dramatic, string-driven Overture, signalling the arrival through dry ice of Goulding’s carefree bangers. Worry About Me featuring blackbear is an assertive hip-pop clapback at a needy ex and perhaps forms a perfect retort to that immature and arbitrary slam in Sheeran’s Don’t. Slow Grenade with Lauv is slick and sweeping, and Close To Me with Diplo and Swae Lee is contemporary trap-pop at its finest. Hate Me with Juice WRLD closes the album and echoes the angsty lyrical feel of You Oughta Know from Alanis Morissette, but against a superb hip-hop backdrop.
Having recently married, this album could easily have been a gushing set of tracks about her love. But Brightest Blue sees Ellie Goulding at her most honest, yet knowing and secure. Granting the album two sides has allowed her to express both acceptance of and exasperation with her journey. The end result of this bold process is the realisation: if you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else?