Album review: Ellie Goulding – ‘Lights’ (Polydor)

She may be gathering plaudits, but her debut doesn't quite win the glittering prize

Top of the BBC Sound Of 2010 poll. Winner of the Critics’ Choice Award at this year’s Brits. Without bagging Young Sportsperson Of The Year and winning The Apprentice, expectations couldn’t be higher for 23-year-old [a]Ellie Goulding[/a]. Her success is a foregone conclusion – with this level of pre-album hype even [a]HEALTH[/a] could guarantee a Top Five hit. But Ellie has a heavier responsibility to bear. Alongside Marina she’s expected to carry the femtronica torch into the new decade and ensure a bright and credible future for those girls who were born part-synth.

You’re right to be concerned. Ellie wasn’t born part-synth. She was your common-or-garden acoustic singer-songwriter until she ran into [a]Frankmusik[/a] and realised there was more to life than open mic nights full of Magners addicts with beards. Now, the folkie-turned-squelchmonger breed doesn’t have a great track record. Add in suspicions that Goulding might be shrouding her fundamentally folk heart in Frankmusik’s skin-deep pop sheen to cash-in as the new [a]La Roux[/a] and what can we expect from ‘Lights’?

At best a catchy pop record like [a]Little Boots[/a]. At worst the sort of contrived drivel that Simon Cowell might concoct for X Factor bombshell Diana Vickers. Hang on… both Ellie and Diane sing with that elfin, lollipop-suckling warble made popular by Joanna Newsom and apparently Goulding’s co-written two songs for Vickers’ forthcoming album. Has anyone seen them in the same room?

Thankfully ‘Lights’ is a catchy pop record like Little Boots. Not that that’s necessarily a cork-popper: fact is, there’s nothing here groundbreaking enough to justify the critical frothing. It’s largely straight-ahead folk-pop dappled with a mild ground-frost of sequenced beats, Auto-Tune, and synth sizzles. When it’s not [a]KT Tunstall[/a], it’s [a]Pink[/a]. When it’s neither one nor the other, it’s both at once. [a]Lady Gaga[/a] is blasting more fresh and interesting ideas out of her left bosom than Goulding exhibits on this entire album. It seems the 2010 tipsters were focusing less on innovation, more on commercial oomph. And this Ellie has in spades: take singles ‘Starry Eyed’ and ‘Under The Sheets’, the spangliest tracks here. The former finds Ellie love-struck and breathless (“You look at me, it’s like you hit me with lightning”) to disco diva beats and looped soul wails, sounding like an angelic [a]Cheryl Cole[/a]. The latter sees her in more bruised and bitter mood as producer Starsmith feeds her vulnerable vocals through an Auto-Tune the size of the Large Hadron Collider: “You left a bloodstain on the floor… like all the boys before”.

These tunes are sparkly of cleavage, designed to seduce the charts with a coy bat of their neon lashes. There’s more: like opener ‘Guns And Horses’, which skitters along on bleeps and fizzes, xylophone tinkles and acoustic strumblings, and the elastic chorus of ‘This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)’.

Infatuation, doubt, sadness and domestic abuse; thus far Ellie’s done a cracking job of tackling folkish concerns via the soulless circuit boards of mirrorball hotpants-pop. It’s when she rolls out the piano-led heart-wrenchers – ‘The Writer’ and ‘Every Time You Go’ – that the arena folk spectres of Norah Jones and Shania Twain rear. Suddenly the reverb-heavy Spanish guitar takes hold and all you can hear is dance Alanis.

Still, the final two tracks indicate that Goulding might yet crush pop boundaries. ‘I’ll Hold My Breath’ – with its effervescent synth bounce and joyful chorus of “a sky of diamonds just for us!” – might well kick-start the Stock, Aitken & Waterman revival. And ‘Salt Skin’ is a truly inventive epic: Ellie lost in a global swirl of programmed strings, bleeps, dark urban scatterbeats and ascending choirs of damaged women.

Melodically speaking, ‘Lights’ is never less than stunning. It’s an impressive attempt to drag folk music out of the hayloft and onto the dancefloor and it marks the emergence of a smart, sincere and talented new pop star. But for all the frivolous electro jiggery-pokery there’s not a rough edge in sight; Ellie remains way too conventional and chart-poised to be the new queen of lady-lectro. You’d love to credit her with the alt.kudos of being a 21st century St Etienne, but she’s simply too eager to rub glittery shoulder-pads with Fergie out of [a]Black Eyed Peas[/a]. And there’s no quicker way to destroy a brilliant new movement than to tailor it for the mainstream.

Mark Beaumont

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Click here to get your copy of Ellie Goulding’s ‘Lights’ from the Rough Trade shop.