Production is a tricky field. On one hand, a great producer can utterly transform an average or undeveloped idea into an excellent song. On the other hand, a bad producer can ruin the potential the track originally had. This can happen by either taking over too much of the creative process, not doing enough to move it along, or overproduce it with generic beats and walls of sound that removes the artist’s musical identity. It’s this third scenario that hurts Ellie Goulding‘s debut album, Lights.
There’s a bevy of producers and writers who had a hand in creating this record. The one who will stand out the most though if you read the album credits is Starsmith, an English producer known more for his remixes than his album work. In fact, Goulding’s album is one of the first that he’s had a large role in terms of songwriting and sound. He co-wrote a little less than half the record and produced a whopping nine out of 11 tracks. The result is that most of what makes Goulding’s work appealing, such as her voice and instrumentation, is lost underneath generic synthesizers that turn these songs into standard pop fare. (For the record, this is a review of the U.S. version of the album, not the original UK release.)
In some cases, this works to the album’s advantage, like when the song is already poppy. The big single, “Lights”, features sunny keys that float around Goulding’s warm, breathy vocals. The track continues to build with the addition of a simple yet groovy drum pattern and the heavy pounding of a synth keyboard in the chorus. The way the melody rises and falls between the chorus and verse is excellent. It’s a very layered track but not overwhelming to the point where you can’t tell what’s going on.
Most of the other numbers Starsmith produced don’t do as well sadly. “Guns and Horses” starts with a Beatles-esque acoustic guitar pattern, feathery drum touches, and a xylophone. It’s a very upbeat song that fits the hopeful lyrics. Musically, though, it falls flat once the chorus comes in. “Starry Eyed” is similar, kicking off with a guitar but moving quickly to a standard pop formula. It uses the stuttering, repeated vocal technique that’s already been found in countless other pop singles. The only thing that saves this from the filler pile is an ascending arpeggio of keys that lead into the chorus. “Salt Skin” has a lovely string-laced introduction that features a Bjork-like wordless vocal. But once the verse starts, the swirling, uninspired synths are back, making it indistinguishable from many other tracks on the album.
The production doesn’t get it wrong every time, though. “The Writer” is Lights‘ centerpiece and it’s easy to see why. Lovely piano melodies slowly rise along with Goulding’s voice to a beautiful, passionate chorus. Acoustic guitar strums hide out in the background, adding a subtle touch to a very basic track. “Your Biggest Mistake”, produced by Fraser T. Smith, is a perfect example of how you can add all the synth bells and whistles without being intrusive. Acoustic guitars, perky keyboards, and marching band drums echo throughout the song, moving up to another uplifting chorus. Unlike many other songs, the production here compliments the core instruments rather than smothering them.
Lights ends with a cover of Elton John’s “Your Song”. After listening to this straightforward version of the classic love ballad, you’ll be convinced that most of the pop production needs to go. Stripped down to just a piano and Goulding’s gorgeous vocals, the track is very moving and a worthy companion to the original. Hints of strings come in towards the end, just adding to the beauty and proving that not all production is unwarranted. If Goulding attempts more of these stripped-back numbers in the future, we’ll be more than happy to listen to her voice and songwriting. As it stands though, it’s tough to justify a full purchase when most originality is buried. Lesson learned? There can always be too much of a good thing.