Brightest Blue: a review and analysis of the new Ellie Goulding album

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Image belongs to Ellie Goulding/Polydor Records

British pop star Ellie Goulding has had an interesting trajectory in pop music. Initially starting as a folktronica artist, Goulding transitioned through synthpop into full-on mainstream pop by the time her 2nd album was reissued. It’s been more than 2 years since Goulding released a proper studio album, despite achieving some success with her last album Delirium and its singles, with the album even garnering some praise from critics. Despite this, some fans have felt that Goulding’s output has suffered from her switch to straightforward pop music and they’ve been clamoring for the old Ellie’s return. Goulding has gone on record to clarify since then that Delirium was an album recorded at a bad time for her, and that she often felt cringeworthy while singing some of its material. In the lead up to her 2020 album Brightest Blue, Goulding stated her intentions to separate the album into two different alter egos reflective of the different parts of her career and assured fans an album was en route, despite having released singles since 2018 with no promise of an album.

“Start” opens with growing cheers that lead into Ellie’s vocals paired off with bare piano, as she ponders how changed she feels following a broken relationship, and her constantly having to reinvent herself and pick herself up. Sweeping strings and hypnotic synths are gradually added in as Ellie comes to the conclusion she is fully moving on and she will embrace the change within her. She enlists serpentwithfeet to echo her aims to grow after breaking off from a relationship and the track recalls Goulding’s left-field electropop from Halcyon, setting the tone for the album. “Power”, which served as one of the singles in the lead-up to the album’s release, showcases Ellie as someone disillusioned by relationships of the modern era, turned off by the narcissism and superficiality of her potential love interests. The production interpolates that of Dua Lipa’s “Be The One”, riffing off that track’s hopeful romanticism with world-weariness and imbuing it with darker synths. Goulding doesn’t fare much better when it comes to romance on “How Deep Is Too Deep”, where she poses the question to her lover that he’s stringing her along and isn’t interested in a substantial relationship, mostly interested in a sexual one. Goulding also reflects upon her knowledge that she could seek out a healthier relationship but is herself attempting to avoid a meaningful relationship. The production here also calls back to her darker synth-laden sound from previous records but sounds modernized, adding trappy drum patterns that tie the track to the current musical landscape. “Cyan” serves as a spoken-word bridge between its preceding track and the following, backed by a melody created from layers of Goulding’s acapella vocals as she explains the impact events in her life have had on her, ending with repeating the title of the previous track. This segues into “Love I’m Given” which gives Goulding a more soulful version of her synthpop sound to reflect on her past and how it has helped her growth & manifested itself in a secure way of loving, one in which she genuinely appreciates the people around her in a way she hasn’t before. The production allows Goulding to employ the same grit in her vocal performance she delivered on Major Lazer’s “Powerful”, but with more passion given the personal nature of her writing here. “New Heights” slows things down to a string-heavy R&B-inflected ballad where Goulding recognizes that her past relationships have been somewhat unfulfilling due to her ignoring her need to love herself. She finds deeper satisfaction in learning more about herself and accepting who she is, despite her flaws.

“Ode to Myself” is an acknowledgment from Goulding to herself that she has spent a lot of time making art for other people or about other people, without fully focusing on creating art for herself and for what she needs to say. It’s a brief interlude accompanied by some electronic production but mostly driven by Goulding’s guitar playing, serving as a peek into her state of mind while making the album. She strips it back down for “Woman”, though not fully as to keep within the same realm of the rest of the album, allowing her to spotlight her unique vocals and give her a chance to affirm her independence as a woman and not allowing herself to be defined by men. The song begins with Goulding singing with only piano until it builds to a crescendo backed by layered ad-libs, which all falls away at the song’s close. The pace picks back up with “Tides” where Goulding’s vocals are sampled and chopped throughout the song, adding texture to the euphoric and syncopated drum pattern. Goulding sings of falling in love with someone and expressing a willingness to defy all expectations & standards to immerse herself within the relationship, capturing the feeling of the honeymoon phase. “Wine Drunk” is another short segue driven by Goulding’s vocodered acapella vocals, as she ponders upon someone who knows her well enough to hurt her — setting the stage for “Bleach”, where Goulding sings of her desires to erase an ex from her memories, even if it’s through ingesting alcohol. The production is mostly led by acoustic guitar and is breezy despite Goulding’s struggles to get past the ex who has done her wrong. “Flux” is another piano-driven almost ballad that allows Goulding to examine her past relationship and realize that while she might still want to be in love with him, it’s no longer healthy for her to be in a relationship with him and doubting how much would change if they stayed together. Goulding enlists a choir to assist her on “Brightest Blue”, the title track where she considers the state of the world and how bad things are for people around the world & persevering through it. She is striving to find her peace amid the world’s chaos, and the production allows Goulding to capture the melodrama of the situation whilst hearkening back to her older material. It’s climactic and serves as a satisfying conclusion to this part of the album.

“Overture” serves as a transition from side A of Brightest Blue to side B, called EG.0 where Goulding departs from the confessional songwriting to focusing on radio-friendly pop hits. The first on deck is “Worry About Me”, which sees hitmaking producer Ilya bring his hip-hop infused pop production to Goulding’s work, where Goulding casually brushes off an ex, assuring them that she is no longer their business. Collaborator blackbear turns in a verse matching Goulding’s nonchalance, willing to leave a complex dynamic with an ex in the past. “Slow Grenade” sees Goulding collaborating with Lauv as they play two halves of a relationship slowly falling apart. They both resign themselves to the futility to the relationship and opine that they must secretly like the dysfunction of their relationship as neither of them is willing to prevent the fallout. Goulding and Lauv’s vocals are vocodered and sped up during the chorus, attempting to mimic the tension and explosiveness of an actual grenade. On “Close to Me”, Ellie drafts Diplo to blend trap with her poppier electronic sound as she fashions a tale of two people who find a mutual connection and are unwilling to compromise by settling for anyone else. It’s one of the catchiest tracks across all sides of the album and sounds tailor-made for radio. While it’s unsurprising that Goulding released the song as a single in 2018, it manages to sound surprisingly fresh given the time that has passed. The album closes out on Goulding’s duet with late rapper Juice WRLD where she again leans into trendy hip-hop to give her pop music mass appeal. She casts herself in a role of toxicity here, teasing a past love interest about his continued longing for her and getting pleasure out of watching her ex struggle to move on. Juice WRLD matches her attitude with a verse that prioritizes his drug use over his relationship with his ex, blaming it on her emotional unavailability and encouraging her to consider his feelings.

Brightest Blue is an attempt from Goulding to reconcile her artistic vision with her commercial viability, even relegating the more commercial tracks to an isolated section of the album to make her intentions clear. However, the main album itself — while allowing Goulding to strengthen the emotional and confessional impact of her songwriting — feels like an attempt to split the bill between her previous albums Halcyon and Delirium to varying degrees of success. There’s no doubt Ellie Goulding has grown as a songwriter and has more to say here than she ever has before, but it sonically feels like Goulding sometimes pulls her punches, instead of finding newer and more interesting ways to get her message across. Goulding turns in fantastic vocal performances across the board and has never sounded better in terms of controlling and understanding her vocal ability, while her lyricism displays signs of maturity, often offering an introspective and keenly self-aware examination of her psyche and her relationships which serves as a compelling narrative. EG.0 displays a heightened version of Goulding meant to entice radio and streaming listeners but undercuts the artistic statement she aimed to provide with Brightest Blue. Overall, this is probably Goulding’s most sincere and strongest effort in terms of raw artistry but it occasionally finds itself bogged down by Goulding’s inability to let go of her top 40 aspirations.

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