Ellie Goulding will not sell 3 million records this week, but aside from that, she has a lot in common with Adele. They’re both charming late-20s ladies with British accents, global ambitions, golden hair and golden voices. And they both have new albums filled with songs they built with the help of pop music’s current master architects, Max Martin and Greg Kurstin.
Yet Adele has been heralded as our planet’s unanimous champion of all that is good and tasteful while Goulding has been roundly dismissed as a humanoid conduit of radio piffle. This is perplexing and unfair, especially when it’s so easy to hear Goulding as the more significant vocalist. Because while all contemporary pop stars are required to sing along with computer-generated rhythms, Goulding might be the only one who sounds as if she is singing from inside the machine.
Goulding recently described “Delirium” as her “big pop album,” and it’s safe to assume that she is talking about its sound as much as its intended reach.
Sonically, everything is big and clean. The beats, the hooks and especially her voice — a Bjork-inflected trill made to sound colossal through advances in digital recording technology and the sheer power of Goulding’s lungs.
You can hear it loud and clear on the album’s most disorienting cut, “On My Mind,” which starts off similar to a recycled Police song, and quickly mutates into the hiccups of a love-sick Transformer. Goulding stands tall atop this crystalline mound of sound, using her staccato mewl to untangle a romantic riddle lurking in her subconscious: “Why / I /got / you / on / my / mi- / -ind.”
Try and sing along if you want. You’ll be swiftly reminded of your limitations, not only as a karaoke enthusiast, but also as a mortal trying to push melodic carbon dioxide across your throat, palate, tongue and teeth in real time.
Goulding’s most compelling vocalizations seem to benefit from her expert phrasing and scrupulous digital editing, but in a way that feels unique to her. When so much modern pop exploits the tension between a singer’s breath and a drum machine’s rigid click-clack, Goulding’s music feels frictionless.
Accordingly, the best songs on “Delirium” are delightfully mechanical pop ditties about human physicality — “We Can’t Move to This,” “Keep on Dancin’ ” — and you can often hear Goulding sucking down big gulps of air before she launches into her loudest, longest notes. But even those inhalations have been grafted to the grid. Everything is rhythm.
Some might flinch at the “artificiality” of this stuff — a word we often use to slag our pop singers and praise our auteurs. We love robots when they make music like Kraftwerk’s and Kanye’s, but when a hit-minded pop star pushes toward something more synthetic, we often choose to hear it as a crutch, a dishonesty, a placeholder for personality, or even an absence of personhood.
Which might also explain why, despite scoring a handful of radio hits, Goulding hasn’t yet become Ellie in the United States. She’s a tabloid regular in her native Britain, but here, she is widely regarded as the anonymous voice attached to a series of collaborative dance-floor cuts she has recorded with Calvin Harris, Zedd and other young titans of electronic dance music.
Obviously, Goulding deserves more than the “Siri of EDM” narrative that she has been assigned — especially considering that those very songs seem to have taught her how to make her voice as formidable as the mightiest sound any producer can summon from a laptop.
And that’s the quiet triumph of Goulding’s extra-loud new music. Tradition instructs us to measure great singers by their ability to “get inside” a song, but Goulding seems to be scrambling the metrics, pushing us toward a place where the song is no longer the container, or the host, or the setting.
Instead of inhabiting a song, she becomes it.