Who is Ellie Goulding? The 28-year-old singer first gained notoriety a few years back as one of the countless British pop chanteuses who invaded U.S. shores in a post-Winehouse universe (the same wave that gave us Adele). But she never should have been lumped in with that crowd, as her voice is a far less showy instrument, and her enthusiasm for icily distant soundscapes suggested she had more in common with Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons than the other torch singers sharing her accent.
On her second album Halcyon, she re-cast herself as the brainiest girl in the club, lording over glitchy dance throbs and thrilling the same alternative rave crowd that genuflects at the altar of Robyn. She also ended up scoring her first bona fide smash in the Calvin Harris-produced “I Need Your Love,” as hedonistic and frothy as beat science gets. It seemed to be a niche wherein Goulding would thrive, as her voice is best put to work as a hypnotic and soulful component of some greater composition rather than a centerpiece.
But with the wind of 50 Shades of Gray smash “Love Me Like You Do” at her back, Goulding reaches lustily for mainstream pop’s brass ring on Delirium, her blockbuster-sized third album. She recruited many of the heaviest hitters she could find: Greg Kurstin contributes to nearly half the tracks, and Ryan Tedder, Max Martin, and ascendant guru Savan Kotecha (The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”) all put in time. Melodically and structurally, these are some of the strongest tracks Goulding has ever had to work with, and tunes like the album-opening “Aftertaste” and the lead single “On My Mind” present themselves as lively, flashy, confident earworms.
But in tightening her approach, she has also narrowed her presence, and often Goulding finds herself lost in her own work, a spectator to the pristine compositions provided by her collaborators. The gospel-kissed two-step “Holding On For Life” shakes and shimmers, but Goulding sounds like she’s trying to keep up with the track as though it’s running away from her, and she doesn’t have enough vocal authority or on-microphone charisma to make it bend to her will. She reveals her weaknesses even more acutely on ballads like the empowerment march “Army,” which sounds perfectly fine by itself but is the type of arms-up climax that Katy Perry or Pink could turn into pure pop euphoria. That’s a fundamental problem with Delirium: When you call in the big guns to take a shot at the A list, you’re in direct competition with the same singers who also use those weapons. Goulding never had any trouble eclipsing Rita Ora, but she doesn’t have enough to win an arms race with Taylor Swift.
Delirium isn’t bad by any means—it’s too well-constructed and honestly ambitious, and the tracks that land in Goulding’s comfort zone (like the slow-burning “Scream It Out” and the pulsating cool of “Codes”) rank among her best work. But the album also fails to elevate Goulding to her desired plateau, ultimately making it a narrow and sometimes frustrating miss. It’s not unlike the situation with the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, another attempt by an unique artist just outside the pop mainstream to throw punches in the Hot 100 cage. (Despite the chart dominance of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills,” the Weeknd’s album also came up short as a transcendent elevation to greatness.) Delirium has the formula for success and Goulding did everything right—maybe too right, as Delirium can feel bloodless and anonymous, a victim of its own meticulous execution. All these songs sound good enough, but the head rush promised by the title never quite arrives.