Monday, November 9, 2015

album review: 'delirium' by ellie goulding

Let's go back to 2012 for a second. The pop charts are in a state of upheaval as throughout the majority of the year they've been dominated by indie rock and pop that flagrantly dodged the club material that had been dominating for the past few years. Sure, established stars still have hits, but it's a time where anything can happen, and it leads to one of the most musically fertile years for the pop charts of the decade. And into this time comes a little unassuming song from an indie pop unknown from the UK that seems to be too stripped back and restrained to become huge... and yet rises up to #2.

That song was 'Lights', the artist was Ellie Goulding, and like most hits from the UK, the song had dropped over a year earlier from her reasonably well-received debut album. It was one of those songs that seemed to come from a different universe than mainstream pop, all restraint and atmosphere and esoteric lyricism... and yet it didn't seem to take long for Ellie to jettison most of that for her second album Halcyon, which was bigger, broader, and showed she was just as comfortable playing in more conventional pop too. On the one hand, I can see why some people would take issue with her ditching her more acoustic touches for heavier, more symphonic electropop, especially considering singles like 'I Need Your Love' had her working with Calvin Harris who could run against David Guetta for the least interesting producer working in EDM. On the other hand, though, 'Lights' has always been one of those songs I respect more than I actually like, whereas 'Burn' remains one of my favourite songs of 2014, with Ellie's willowy tones and the bells show exactly how to make a simple pop tune so much more. 

That said, when I heard that Delirium was going to be even more of a pop-centric record, recruiting songwriters like Max Martin, I was a bit uneasy. One of the reasons that I thought Ellie was a good fit for airy, more sweeping electropop or even EDM is her ethereal vocal tone and her more abstract writing - getting her to make more modern pop tracks just struck me as an awkward experiment. That said, 'On My Mind' has grown on me a fair bit, and I figured I might as well give this a chance. How did it go?

Well, it went about as well as I expected, because for as much Ellie Goulding wants to cite Delirium as an experiment, in the larger context of modern pop music this album doesn't come close. And yet I'm hesitant to call this record a complete 'sell-out' in the conventional sense, because she was already in the pop space and it's not like there's been a major shift in her songwriting since Halcyon. But this record does give me the same disappointment that comes with sell-outs, that sees Ellie Gouldling grappling with musical shifts that don't really fit her strengths as an artist.

So let's start with Ellie Goulding herself - and look, I like her vocal timbre. She can bring a certain effervescence to her fluttering vocals that can be damn infectious if she's paired with the right production. It's earnest and heartfelt and yet almost ethereal that paradoxically works well in both stripped-back indie folk and soaring ballads. And I like the contrast that often comes through in this airy presentation placed against the mature assertiveness of her lyrics, it's a really potent balance. But here's the thing: Ellie's got certain unique vocal tics in pronunciation and flow that really helps her stand out, and Delirium is probably the first album where she seems to be losing some of these through heavier multi-tracking and vocal production, piling on the backing vocals with so much misty blur that it inevitably erases some of these... and that's before we get pitch-shifting on tracks like 'Don't Need Nobody'. Now I get why this was done - pretty standard operating practice for pop music attempting to strengthen thinner vocals - but it strikes me as forcing the vocals to fit production rather than the other way around, and it does nothing for Ellie's flavour on the album. It doesn't help matters that so much of any melody comes through in added vocal fragments that are even further contorted, at best like the wispy swell like 'Around U' or the symphonic gospel swell on 'Holding On For Life' or even the synthetic touches on 'Devotion', but at worst on the ugly glitchiness of 'Keep On Dancing' or the filters piled onto 'Aftertaste' or the terribly nasal vocal production on the hook of 'We Can't Move To This'.

But the production problems run deeper than that, and that ties into the instrumentation. Now keep in mind on Ellie's best material, even when she went pop, the melodies behind her could match her vocal tone with enough flourishes to keep them original. Even on tracks like 'Burn', which is the closest thing to straightforward EDM-inspired pop that you'll find, you had the bells and a precise melodic balance that allowed them to play off each other. And yet for the most part, Delirium doesn't have this, instead falling much closer to generic, reverb-saturated, percussion-driven modern pop with any actual instrumental melody either marginalized in favour of wiry synth beats or carried on overproduced vocal fragments. And yet even with that, there are gleaming spots that do work - the gleaming keys of 'Something In The Way You Move', the overprocessed guitar of 'On My Mind', or the shimmering poppy swell of 'Around U'. What becomes bizarre is when this album finally makes a pivot back towards the folk where Ellie started with some acoustic guitar on the final third of this record, only 'Lost And Found' preserves that bouncy acoustic groove and it easily becomes the best track on the record. But elsewhere, when Ellie's vocals feel designed to soar, why do so many of these tracks build up reverb that's so dark and heavy or percussion so oily or cluttered that it only drags the record down. Hell, take a song like 'Army' that actually had a good acoustic foundation before the beat completely swamped it out. And sure, the huge walls of synth still come through, but the crescendos are far more abrupt and disrupt the grooves more often than they compliment them. All of this - plus melodies that feel way too static and blocky to really evolve - means that Delirium feels oddly stiff... or at least it would if it wasn't blanketed in blurring fuzz that further muffles the melody and makes even more of these instrumentals feel indistinct and completely bland.

Thankfully, Ellie Goulding remains an above-average pop songwriter, which takes us to the lyrics. Now as I said, there's an assertive mature confidence in Ellie Goulding's writing that doesn't shy away from being vulnerable when she needs to be - not so much raw but open and plain-spoken. She'll sing about break-ups or bad relationships that seem destined to end - and she very much knows it - but she's determined to wring the best of it while she can like 'Holding On For Life' or 'Something In The Way You Move', only getting exasperated when her partner isn't as openly honest and confident as her. Hell, it's arguably where the most intriguing lyrics come on this album, like on 'Codes' where she'll admit she'll overanalyze things so keeping it simple works better for them both. Or take the unconventional relationship of 'Don't Panic', where she acknowledges she has baggage and her repeated heartbreaks might make the current situation seem awkward from the outside... but it is working, at least for her. It's one of the reasons why the inclusion of 'Love Me Like You Do' from Fifty Shades of Grey feels like a bad decision for Delirium - not only is it a sloppily written and thuddingly mediocre song, it's not remotely believable that Ellie would play this sort of character - and given she didn't write the song, it's not surprising. And of course there's 'On My Mind', easily the most interesting track operating as the counterpoint to Ed Sheeran's 'Don't', because even if it wasn't directly about him, it plays on the same principle and confirms the same characters. More importantly, it further defines an interesting trait about how Ellie approaches her relationships - distance. This isn't a rollercoaster of raw emotion, mostly because she's in her own world enough to detach... and yet she does show some wistful regret that because of that detachment, things have fallen through. And at the same time that detachment can make some of the relationships lacking a more intimate emotional core, at least until you get to 'Lost And Found', where she sings about her hometown and wishing she could stay behind a little longer.

But as a whole... look, for as much as Ellie is a good writer, a lack of solid melodies or production to really support her voice really hurts this album, and it ends up feeling way more generic and formless than it should. Not helped by feeling long at nearly an hour, Delirium feels like a great unique talent trying to push herself into a box, and it doesn't flatter anyone. I can't even say the album is bad so much as it is forgettable, but she's really capable of a lot better, so for me it's a 5/10 and only recommended if you're a fan. But even then, of her catalogue this is probably her weakest release, and I can only hope Ellie remembers her strengths before any future release, because while this album might lodge her hits, it won't be because they're good, or all that interesting.

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