Ellie Goulding named her third album “Delirium” because she felt like it summed up her life, but the term describes her confusing, ungrounded place in pop music, as well. “Lights” broke out in 2012, and follow-up Halcyon/Halcyon Days kept her on the map, but Goulding has always had a sense of remove from pop’s center. She makes music that, even at its brightest, has an “outsider” affiliation, if only you can feel the distance between her profile and that of, say Bruno Mars or Taylor Swift. At the same time, she doesn’t have a cushy indie critic reputation like fellow 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack collaborator The Weeknd, nor is she especially beholden to the EDM scene, despite joint efforts with big names like Skrillex and Calvin Harris. All of this together makes for a career that pulls in every direction, but feels incoherent.
Goulding seems aware of this, and has billed Delirium as her attempt “to make a big pop album.” The move makes sense: Goulding for the last few years now has been consistent if not essential chart performer, she’s built a solid presence, and she has forward momentum from her ubiquitous 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack single “Love Me Like You Do.” In declaring Delirium her pop move and a “desire to be on another level”, she’s setting the album up to be The One: the album where the gains and exposure she’s achieved in the last few years are cashed in for a place within the pop elite. Goulding wants Delirium to be her 1989, or at least her Beauty Behind the Madness.
Calling Delirium “a big pop album” also makes sense because it’s the shortest, straightest line from question to answer in describing what the album is. There are no bids for genre radio stations, no guest verses, or no plays for hipster cred; just an onslaught of three and a half to four minute bangers-deliberately-written-as-“bangers” with the broadest appeal possible. The record stays firmly in mid-tempo electropop, where the hooks are in explosive choruses that follow quiet bridges. There’s nary a surprise to be found, but that doesn’t make Delirium any less catchy. It’s as down the middle a pop album as you’re going to hear.
This is actually less a good thing in practice than you’d think in concept. While there isn’t an outright bad song on Delirium, and I’d even hesitate to call something like “Holding On For Life” (standard big budget electropop augmented with a raved up choir backing the chorus and disco piano chords) filler, other songs hit the same pleasure centers, like the horn-assisted hook and big drums of “We Can’t Move to This.” Albums where every song wants to be The Single have this problem; even good material can feel stale without a sense of pacing or any attention to variety. On one hand, “Around U”, “Codes”, and “Don’t Panic” are all super enjoyable pop songs, but together they’re a tedious sum of ruthlessly catchy parts. I like the loosely acoustic, vulnerable ballad “Army” because, well, because it’s one of the best songs here, but I’d be all for it, if only since it’s the one time the album stops to take a breath.
I get why Goulding and company made an album where any song could be a single: Goulding has a weird (read: poor) history at predicting her hits. Her biggest songs have been last chance hits or tracks written for year-later rereleases, not fire-on-arrival lead singles. It is, in a weird way, logical for her to hurl an album of potential chart busters at the public, and let the free (streaming) market decide a single for her.
That’s not a knock on robo-bouncy lead single “On My Mind” or second, groovy offering “Something in the Way You Move”, all I’m saying is nothing stick until, like “Devotion” with its guitar loop and Daft Punk-ized vocals takes off in March. And, if it doesn’t, I’m sure whatever leads from the High Delirium reissue will do the trick. Meanwhile, fans can pull from tuneful jams like “Keep on Dancin'”, “Lost and Found”, or “Around U” for playlists. For me, the downright effervescent “Don’t Panic”, which sounds like a slightly polished outtake from Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION is a keeper, and opener “Aftertaste” and the aforementioned “On My Mind” are great, too. But, for me, “Don’t Need Nobody”, a full-bodied banger that sounds like DJ Mustard gone Top 40, is Delirium‘s best chance at pop supremacy.
It speaks to how much I like “Don’t Need Nobody” that, at ten songs in, it got me reenergized for Delirium. Like I said, I get why the album’s structured the way it is, but holy shit is it overloaded. Not only does every song playing out to the back row at Coachella, but the standard edition tallies 16 tracks in a whopping 56 minutes (the deluxe edition pushes this to 78 minutes, the longest an album can go before it defaults to double album status). This might be understandable if the record had any discernible peaks or valleys or a narrative, but that kind of length is grueling for what amounts to a collection of songs. And while they’re good songs by an indefatigable performer, I suspect Goulding will be waiting awhile longer for that next level to arrive. A long pop career is the result of a focused effort, not something attainable in fit of Delirium.