Naming an album Stellular welcomes inevitable discussion regarding the relative starriness of the performer and their work. With Rose Elinor Dougall, there is a sense that she is a star, but that her time to shine fully has still to arrive; that her light has often been hidden under a bushel or – as she admitted recently – her fringe. She began as one third of The Pipettes, where polka dots and synchronised dance routines detracted from their sharp hooks and minds (witness how leader Gwenno has flourished since leaving the group).
Her second single Start/Stop/Synchro was one of 2009’s great releases, though its parent album Without Why was largely and unfairly ignored upon arrival a year later. Little brother Tom, guitarist in buzz-bands Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong and Toy, commanded far more column inches. Rose collaborated with Mark Ronson on his Record Collection album and found comfort in crowds, touring for two and a half years as part of Ronson’s Business Intl band. Stellular marks Elinor Dougall’s return centre stage and, in both title and content, makes good on her expressed desire to be “more assertive”, less apologetic.
“Can you ride the stellular new wave?” reads a flyer in the video for the title track, and “stellular new wave” is a neat summary of this LP’s sound: artful synth-pop with a glistening contemporary sheen, not dissimilar to what her mates The Horrors were going for on their similarly-titled Luminous. Elinor Dougall shares with Gwenno a love for kosmische music – in a recent podcast, discussing her favourite album, she revealed that Broadcast’s Tender Buttons became something of an obsession on the Pipettes’ tour bus – though she often chooses to marry these textures to a more classic strain of songwriting. Her distinctly English voice is a versatile instrument, equally at home on Ronson’s chart-bothering pop and more explorative fare like Innerspace Orchestra’s take on Manfred Mann Chapter Three’s One Way Glass.
Opener Colour Of Water is closer in style to the later: a spacey, widescreen stunner, with Toy-ish guitars and shimmering synths mirroring the “vivid flashes” and “scattered spectrum” of its imagery. If there are many better Side One Track Ones in 2017, then it’ll be a very fine year indeed. While Colour of Water is probably the best thing here, Space To Be runs it close: beginning with jittering, manipulated vocals, it boasts lyrics about sudden “tectonic shifts” and a wonderful, undeniable chorus. “I want a love to lift me up high”, Elinor Dougall sings as synths rise gloriously, “to wreak havoc on this heart of mine.” A triumphant guitar solo appears three minutes in and brings the track on home.
Strange Warnings and Stellular are more direct: tight, memorable radio-friendly tracks packed with lovely little production flourishes from Boxed In. Things are turned down a few notches for Take Yourself With You’s breezy glide of synths and acoustic guitars. Co-written with Sean Nicholas Savage, All At Once has a bright bounce reminiscent of Rapture-era Blondie and a full-blooded sultriness (“everything tonight, everything tomorrow…I’m so tired of waiting”) a world away from The Pipettes’ bawdy kitsch. In lesser hands, Answer Me would be a drippy, Radio 2-style ballad; instead, her graceful vocal combines with reverberating keyboard notes to create something genuinely affecting.
Elinor Dougall has obviously taken her time to get this album sounding just as she wants – Strange Warnings and Poison Ivy first appeared on 2013’s Future Vanishes EP – and, on the majority of these cuts, that time has been unquestionably well spent. It doesn’t all work: Closer is closer to Sophie Ellis Bextor than Rose Elinor Dougall, with an insistently jaunty hook that quickly grates. Dive is a forgettable piece of new wave with a personality-free guest spot from Boxed In which suggests he should have remained on the other side of the glass. Not even a thrilling buzz of noise near the end of Hell And Back can rescue its weak “devils and demons” chorus.
Stellular finishes strong, however, with Space To Be and Wanderer, a beautiful, heartfelt ode to the stellular figure in her life. “Please forgive my recklessness,” she sings. “Even after everything… always you, forever you.”