Brightest Blue, the fourth album by British pop singer Ellie Goulding, out July 17th, has been five years in the making. She has described Blue as something that allows people “to immerse themselves into a world of hope despite everything being so bleak.” She says that it’s about “tear[ing] through your own demons” and “free[ing] yourself from toxic relationships.”
This sounds exactly like the follow-up that her 2012 release Halcyon promised, though not the one that 2015’s Delirium delivered. Ellie described Halcyon as “very self-indulgent” and “the most honest record she’s ever written.” The album is a meshing of heart-wrenching storytelling and the moody electronic style that would be embodied by Billie Eilish a few years later. But Delirium went the opposite direction, embracing modern pop on the back of global number one “Love Me Like You Do.”
If anything, Blue seems to be promising a regression in sound. Though, depending on which fan you talk to, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The journey from Halcyon to now has been an often confusing, wild ride through multiple embodiments of the pop genre.
In my opinion, most people, especially music industry executives, don’t really know what to do with Ellie Goulding. But I sometimes think that Ellie Goulding didn’t always know what to do with herself either. Nowhere is this more apparent than Blue’s accompanying EP EG.0. Self-described as a collection of songs by her “alter ego,” this collection perfectly encapsulates just how bizarre and fragmented a career that she has actually had.
After a brief introduction via “Overture,” the lead single for the Brightest Blue era begins. “Worry About Me” is Ellie’s most bombastic single yet, clearly reveling in the influence of hip-hop production techniques. Her classical music background still manages to influence the track via vocal tics that create the most interesting musical moments of the song and the detracting off-kilter choral refrain. It also features a run-of-the-mill rap feature from blackbear. It’s not a bad song, but nothing really sets it apart.
Part of the problem is that it feels like a lead single for a different album than the one she’s been promising. It feels like a label saying, “You went this other direction, but we still need this from you.” It’s hard to know what to expect from Brightest Blue when the lead single is technically a b-side. But this isn’t the first time a record label has messed with Ellie’s packaging or album sequencing to capitalize on shifting musical trends.
2010’s UK release Lights is a restrained singer-songwriter discovering herself in the British pop landscape. It was re-released nine months later as Bright Lights with more of an emphasis on modern pop sounds leading to her US breakthrough hit “Lights.” Because of this success, another different version of Lights was released in the US in 2011 with a different selection of songs. 2012’s Halcyon was also re-released in 2013 as Halcyon Days with more pop-sensible songs, including career highlight “Burn.”
EG.0’s next song, “Slow Grenade,” featuring current rising pop star Lauv, is the only song in this collection that vaguely resembles what Ellie’s debut album sounded like. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this is also by far the best song in this small b-side collection, marrying the acoustic guitar sensibilities and lyrical vulnerability of her early career with modern pop electronics that have defined her career since.
Her popularity has been bolstered by being a prominent feature artist of the mid-2010s EDM boom. Alongside Calvin Harris, Ellie contributed to global chart-toppers “I Need Your Love” and “Outside.” Zedd called on her services for “Fall Into the Sky.” Major Lazer enlisted her for the sultry “Powerful,” while Kygo provided the beats to her reminiscent and nostalgic “First Time.”
Every song on this EP is laden with features, whereas the main album only has one. 2018’s collaboration with Diplo and Swae Lee, “Close To Me,” appears on EG.0 to continue both of these trends. This is Ellie’s modern pop sweet spot and where she shines. And yet its inclusion comes across clearly as a label trying to move albums or whatever the modern streaming equivalent term is.
The final track of EG.0, “Hate Me,” featuring the recently deceased Juice WRLD, continues to build on the sound promised in “Worry About Me,” but is all around a much better song. There’s a confidence on display that’s refreshing when you know of Ellie’s struggles from previous releases. You can’t help but root for her to enjoy this “alter ego” because she has put in the work to fight for herself. It’s not a bad thing to hear an artist having fun.
Ellie has always been down to lend her talents to a soundtrack. She’s released singles to radio supporting Divergent, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Bridget Jones’ Baby. She’s also appeared on soundtracks for Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Girls Vol. 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and the Netflix documentary Our Planet among others.
Because of this, it is very weird to me that the only non-album single from the period between Delirium and Blue to not be included on this album is the song “Sixteen,” the best song she’s released since 2015. It’s a song meant to accompany a post-climactic prom dance scene in a YA movie. For a collection of songs loosely representing every stage of her career, interestingly self-called as her “alter ego,” there’s no way it shouldn’t be here.
I’ve written way too much about her career and these five songs because, at the end of the day, I love Ellie Goulding. She has been integral to my personal battles with mental health and pursuing joy in the darkness. Every album she’s released has been just a few steps ahead of my personal journey, holding up a light to guide me a few more steps forward.
So when Ellie promises that Brightest Blue is filled with “some truths, some dreams, some questions and answers, some hope,” I can’t help but anticipate the album. Later this week, I’ll get to hear this album for the first time. I’m so excited to get new insights into the journey. Even if I’m not quite sure how EG.0 fits into the picture, I’m still singing and dancing.