Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.
When last we heard a studio album from Ellie Goulding (2015’s Delirium), she was firmly secured in her place as a singer of power pop anthems, riding the large success of “Love Me Like You Do” from Fifty Shades of Grey. But now, five years later on her latest studio album Brightest Blue, she is wrestling with love, heartbreak and identity on a mostly R&B album made up of ballads and vulnerability.
“I was old when I was younger / All the lives I’m not living / Always trying to pull me under” are the lyrics that begin Goulding’s new LP, immediately suggesting we are about to be treated to something entirely different than what we are used to hearing from her. “Maybe we don’t need the bigger picture / ‘Cause all I see is everything I’ve done called into question / Sorry, what was the question?” she sings on “Start,” undoubtedly about a romantic relationship, but the track’s double meaning suggests that Goulding is done being held down by labels—romantic or otherwise.
Brightest Blue doesn’t stray too far away from the Ellie Goulding we know and love, especially on the ‘80s synthpop inspired single “Power,” which helps set the stage for the ballads that make up the vast majority of the album. On “How Deep is Too Deep,” she’s recognizing a tendency to give too much of herself to places and people that don’t always deserve it: “Oh, I could do better, baby, let’s be honest / It’s ironic, I know / I can find something deeper baby, but / How deep is too deep?” On “Love I’m Given,” she learns the limits to how much a human being can hold and how nice it can be to have a companion along the way: “I used to think that I was so invincible / I tore myself to pieces, had to put on a show / You put me back together / And it feels like home, it feels like home.”
The album’s most powerful moments come in the form of “Ode to Myself” and “Flux,” both of which signal Goulding’s immense songwriting ability. The former, a short track of barely two minutes that somewhat serves as an interlude, wrestles with taking back possession of ourselves from someone else: “Paint spilling, blue blood / I look back with fondness / But where was my fortitude?” The latter, meanwhile, deals with the aftermath of realizing you’ve been used by someone: for love, for security, for inspiration. “Don’t forget me, like I didn’t care / Yeah, I stole from myself just to make you complete,” she sings. “I’m still in love with the idea of loving you / It’s a state of flux, but it’s not enough / And I’m still in love with the idea of loving you / It’s a state of flux, I just keep holding on.”
Brightest Blue is a double album, with Side A serving as the new record itself, while Side B is composed of collaborations Goulding has done over the last few years, including the highly successful “Close to Me” with Diplo and Swae Lee as well as her latest with Lauv, “Slow Grenade.” While the album certainly would have been fine without Side B, its inclusion does serve a purpose: to remind us that Goulding is a versatile musician, at once able to punch us in the heart with her R&B ballads while also still delivering radio-friendly pop singles with killer hooks that beg you to stop and sing along. “And tell me how you hate me, hate me, still tryna replace me / Chase me, chase me, tell me how you hate me,” she sings on Side B’s closer. Brightest Blue, Goulding’s best and most vulnerable work yet, proves that we could never hate or replace her. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another five years to hear from her again.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Brightest Blue: “Start,” “Power,” “How Deep is Too Deep,” “Love I’m Given,” “Tides,” “Ode to Myself,” “Flux,” “Close to Me,” and “Hate Me”