Ellie Goulding wants you to know that Delirium, her first full-length work in three years, is a big pop album, in opposition to what apparently amounted to small-to-medium format works Lights and Halcyon. There’s no denying that the narratives and emotions behind Goulding’s work have certainly always felt big — cinematic, even. A few genuine gems sprinkled throughout Delirium serve to support the bravado behind this claim. For all the buildup, though, the execution of Goulding’s larger-than-life ambition doesn’t always live up to the premise. She’s commanding a big stage, but the stadium-sized spectacle can ultimately feel disjointed and, in its worst moments, bland, forcing listeners to sit back and try to piece together what, exactly, just happened after the final big synth flourish fades out.
No one is saying that Delirium doesn’t sound big. It certainly does. But there’s a difference between sounding big and sounding powerful, between sounding big and sounding like you have something to say. Other heavy-hitting pop stars playing in the same league — Taylor Swift is clearly the most obvious choice, but Carly Rae Jepsen is also a fair comparison — have managed to carve out distinct niches for themselves through personal, intimate lyrics and songs that worked together as a cohesive album, yet also had their own sonic footprints.
The songs that populate Delirium, while often relying on the same ’80s touchstones as Swift and Jepsen’s most recent output, can tend to blur together if you’re not listening carefully. To be sure, there are plenty of club bangers here. Goulding pulled in the production talents of the likes of Carl Falk, Peter Svensson and the indomitable Max Martin to cultivate the dance floor-heavy sound she was aiming for. But 16 tracks is extensive for an album of this nature, and things start to drag. While the instrumentation is certainly much more aggressive this time around, things sometimes lack in nuance.
The halting “On My Mind” (possibly playing off of tabloid gossip surrounding her and Ed Sheeran) deals with a boy who wanted her heart, while she just liked his tattoos. It’s a fun enough song, but it doesn’t invite multiple listens. On the other hand, the easy, infectious standouts, like “Don’t Panic” and “We Can’t Move to This”, do their jobs exceedingly well. They almost make up for the serviceable, but less distinctive, tracks like “Codes”: “I need a love to celebrate,” she sings, herself not revealing all that much. “Stop talking in codes.”
The overall effect is of Goulding taking different approaches to the concept of big — some of them flirtatious and coy, some of them all-out bombastic. Her persona fluctuates between level-headed pragmatist and hopeless romantic, but Goulding herself, as the driving force behind these songs, sometimes seems to get lost in the shuffle. “Love Me Like You Do”, the ballad she contributed to Fifty Shades of Grey that any media-consuming human in 2015 has undoubtedly heard at least 50 times at this point, ultimately stands as the track with the strongest and most distinctive perspective, although “Army” and “Something In the Way You Move” come from the same widescreen vein.
Ultimately, chunks of Delirium cement Goulding’s place in our current pop soundscape. However, the album doesn’t fit together as well as, say, 1989 or E-MO-TION. The 28-year-old Brit could very well score a few major hits with the material presented here, but Delirium is less likely to define her personal brand or carve out a niche in a field already dominated by gigantic, stadium-sized personalities.
Essential Tracks: “On My Mind”, “Don’t Panic”, and “Army”