Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: Brightest Blue • Ellie Goulding

Not long ago, a single release was meant to be a fair representation of its artist: Folks enamored with a popular radio single expected the song to reside in a corresponding album with meaningful context. As we shorten our attention span app by app, how people interact with music has fallen more frivolous than ever: Short-form video app TikTok now plucks songs at random from relative obscurity and pumps artists with false confidence as their tracks become one-off meme soundtracks. Labels fudge song titles on streaming platforms to align with viral snippets and commission remixes to bolster popularity, but often, it seems the popularity spike doesn’t translate to a full body of work or a sustainable career. That’s perhaps what makes Ellie Goulding’s business model so perplexing.

A popular name in both Europe and North America, Ellie Goulding has three strong albums and a decent number of hits to her name. As a consistently above-average commercial performer, she doesn’t seem like someone who should need to chase a hit to green light an album. But by the time it was announced earlier this year, her fourth studio effort, Brightest Blue, was already a few years old. While it sat dormant on her Google Drive, Goulding was preoccupied with other matters: Her name headlined a string of sloppy singles with Generation Z rappers, supposedly in the name of artistic liberation – and much more importantly, she got married last year. It could be assumed that Ellie Goulding’s perspective today differs from the one from which she wrote most of Brightest Blue, which could make the it seem more like a time capsule than a current statement.

With the record, not much of an attempt is made to reconcile everything Goulding has done post-Halcyon, her sophomore release. She recently wrote off overblown pop moment Delirium as a risk with poor return on investment – “I wrote it off before I even went out on tour with it. I knew in my bones it wasn’t right,” she told The Guardian recently. The past year’s worth of American streaming-pandering collaborations are lumped onto a second disc, carrying the appeal of a party favor grab bag filled with circus peanuts. The main album, however, knocks Ellie Goulding back into a proper timeline: Familiar names Joe Kearns, Jim Eliot, and Starsmith return to co-write and co-produce smoldering cuts that scale back any commercial pop inclinations and allow her versatile soprano to drift to the forefront.

As it largely recounts betrayal and revival, Brightest Blue bleeds between swollen ponds of choirs and gentrified strings. The most electricity is generated early in its run with "Power," a crowning jewel of her discography that contrasts dark bass with a bursting chorus, and "How Deep is Too Deep," a moody cut that edges alternative rhythm and blues. At the opposite end, the title track closes the album with skyrocketing surges of strings. Between its bookends, however, the record is often a much more understated reflection on unresolved feelings: While it bows just slightly in its midsection with the noticeably fuzzy "Tides," it regains its momentum in most other areas with a reliance on impressive vocal dynamics. Her vocals are the plush pillow-top of the trendy mid-tempo "Bleach," but the sturdy backbone on both piano ballads ("Flux," "Woman") and bluesy "New Heights."

In some ways, Brightest Blue follows the Ellie Goulding blueprint set into motion with her debut release after it was reconfigured to accommodate her first sleeper hit: The sufficient crowd-pleasers patched into – or in this case, pinned to the coattails of – a record filled with noticeably greater songs. But especially compared to its predecessor, Brightest Blue couldn't be less of an Ellie Goulding record: It is understated and under-produced, mostly to its own advantage. Whereas Halcyon stacked vocal chops and runs to create incredible textures, Brightest Blue accentuates Goulding's stamina as a vocalist – not as a production asset. And after having spent years tied to a career moving faster and more erratically than expected – even during the clunky promotion of this very album – Ellie Goulding manages to become the centerpiece of her own music once again.

Brightest Blue is available now under Interscope Records.

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