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Review: With Delirium, Ellie Goulding leaves folk and EDM for pop superstardom

The British singer's new album is gleaming and ruthlessly catchy — but is it her?

Polydor

You have Ellie Goulding to thank for one of this year’s transcendent pop musical moments, the kind that’s destined for prime spots in year-end mashups and a decade of amateur karaoke heroics. "My head’s spinning around, I can’t see clear no more… what are you waiting for?" The beat drops, the floodgates open, a mini-orchestra springs to life and swoops overhead; Goulding soars above it, clear and effervescent. It’s a pure, ecstatic moment. And though it was created in service of a schlocky movie about a controlling rich guy with a penchant for S&M, "Love Me Like You Do" manages to escape the stink of Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all Goulding’s, and the song took her from the periphery of pop stardom to the top of charts around the world. (I guess you could say she earned it.)

Delirium is Goulding’s third studio album, and "Love Me Like You Do" sits waiting in its middle like cream inside an éclair. Some hit songs have a gravity unto themselves; you can feel them warping the music around them. They can drag artists towards a naked pursuit of further success when they might’ve made a show of thinly veiling it before. That’s the impact "Love Me Like You Do" has on Delirium. "A part of me views this as an experiment — to make a big pop album," said Goulding in a statement announcing the album. "I made a conscious decision that I wanted it to be on another level."

Delirium sticks a fork in Goulding's trajectory

What does "another level" look like for an artist with two chart-topping albums and eight top 10 singles in the UK? From a commercial perspective, it means asserting control over the American charts, too; from a musical perspective, the answer’s less certain. 2011’s "Lights" was her big break, a delicate, frostbitten single that hovered somewhere between synth-pop and the folk of her artistic origins. 2012’s strong LP Halcyon built on it with songs that were more intricate and more aggressive, from Passion Pit-aping single "Anything Could Happen" to the dubstep-lite of "Figure 8." It was a sensual, confessional record, one frank about love’s dangers and joyous when it blossomed, and it placed Goulding in an unexpected line. She was descending from Kate Bush, from Ray of Light, from Vespertine — that’s an unusual set of touchstones, even for a mid-tier pop star.

For better or worse, Delirium sticks a fork in that trajectory. Goulding made the album with some of the heaviest behind-the-scenes hitters in pop music today, people like Max Martin and Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder. These writers and producers are enjoying a period of near-ubiquity right now; Martin and his cabal of writers in particular are making so many hits it’s irresponsible not to mention them. You can hear vestiges of other hits all over Delirium: the chug of Taylor Swift’s "Style," the low-end throb of The Weeknd’s "Can’t Feel My Face," the whistled hook of Adam Lambert’s "Ghost Town."

This isn’t a problem by definition. The songs above aren’t just slabs of musical MSG pumped out of a factory — they’re immaculate shells that can’t become hits without the magnetism of the right artistic match. The same is true of the best songs on Delirium, which give Goulding room for interpretation and allow her to balance intimacy, ice, and the best melodies she’s ever handled. "Love Me Like You Do" is one of them; single "Army" is even better, a teenage paean for a close friend that explodes into an intense, heartwarming finales. "Codes" is the sort of personable club-pop people would fall over themselves to praise if Carly Rae Jepsen released it as an E • MO • TION b-side.

Goulding herself is getting lost in these ruthlessly catchy songs

It’s unfortunate that Delirium can’t reach that level more consistently. Part of the problem is the album’s length: Delirium is almost an hour in its shortest form, and there are deluxe versions of the album that stretch out over 25 tracks. I appreciate Goulding’s prolificacy, and there’s something almost endearing about stuffing the album so full — it suggests she likes these songs so much she can’t bear to let them go. But pop is an art form that rewards concision, and the album’s stronger tracks get lost in clumps that don’t connect.

The more pressing issue is the sense that Goulding herself is getting lost in these capable, ruthlessly catchy songs. Almost anything on Delirium could be a hit; only a few of these songs are Ellie Goulding hits, and it sounds like she knows it. "I suppose initially, that was the interest: you could hear my voice and know exactly who it was straight away. Now I don’t know," said Goulding in an interview with SPIN. "I make songs that could potentially be sung by a lot of different people… would this song still be good without my voice or not? I don’t know. That’s always a mystery to me."