With a BBC Music Choice award slung ever so conspicuously around her neck for 2010, one heartily expects to be disappointed by folk/electropop crossover artist Ellie Goulding’s debut album. Another quirkily-voiced female singer-songwriter dabbling in the ‘80s with indie sensibility, as if we didn’t have enough of them in the charts in 2009. Working predominantly with upcoming nu-disco producer Starsmith, and conversely taking into account Goulding’s acoustically-based live performances, this collaboration could have turned out to be distinctly hit or miss, whilst still not being a particularly original idea.
Going on the refreshingly creative and uplifting melodies of the album’s first singles, the silky smooth pulse of “Under the Sheets” and the high-on-life synthbop of “Starry Eyed”, things are looking up. Press play and we are greeted by the subdued acoustic pickings of opener “Guns and Horses”, which surprisingly suggests typical singer-songwriter traditions before gleefully catapulting itself into the shotgun toting synths of the chorus. Followed by “Starry Eyed”, also subtly based around acoustic guitar until the chorus, it seems that this crossover is a success. The gorgeous and lavish dancepop of “This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)” is slightly more Starsmith than Goulding, but her earnest hiccup of a vocal ensures her presence is known above Starsmith’s lovely ping pong synths. Ellie balances this skew with the emotionally charged and utterly adorable ballad, “The Writer”, in which Ellie’s song benefits from a refreshingly live arrangement.
Sadly, the second half of the album fails to live up to the impact of the first. “Every Time You Go” doesn’t seem particularly interesting, and “Wish I Stayed” is quirky and wordy, but ultimately forgettable here, neither track seeming to show off the skills of Goulding or Starsmith. Luckily, “Your Biggest Mistake” sports the album’s best bridge and chorus, somewhat out of the blue, with its irresistible vocal hooks, but fails to save the album from fading out rather than going out with a bang, as “I’ll Hold my Breath” and “Salt Skin” pass by without leaving an impression and all of the sudden the album is over.
Lights showcases some incredibly promising material, but on the whole is lacklustre and unsatisfying as an album. 10 tracks isn’t a lot for a pop album in 2010, and yet it still finds room for filler which tarnishes the overall impression that the undoubtedly talented Goulding makes. The inclusion of some of the weaker material suggests that under the pressure of the BBC’s honorary award, the album was rushed and hurriedly put together. Despite the charming melodic and producing efforts of Starsmith, the more forgettable songs are still discernible from the more interesting and enjoyable ones, and no nifty drum sequencers and walls of synth successfully hide this.
Saying this, so far I’ve been very complimentary of Starsmith’s production, but it’s very easy to blame Goulding’s songs for the lower standard of some of the album’s tracks. However, when considering that Goulding is originally an acoustic performer, all one has to do is listen to the spellbinding acoustic version of “Starry Eyed” (from said single) to wonder whether in fact the album’s seemingly weaker songs have been spoiled by Starsmith’s one track synth-crazy mind, and would benefit from a good old fashioned strip down. Listening to “I’ll Hold My Breath” and imagining it performed acoustically is undoubtedly more rewarding. By the same token, Goulding’s words are often bittersweet and honest, usually dealing with romantic pursuits, from the intense (“This Love”) to the reflective (“Wish I Stayed”), and often painfully self-conscious (“The Writer”), but, in retrospect, are sometimes lost beneath the synthpop bombast.
Essentially, it’s hard to know who to blame, but referring back to my initial “hit or miss” fear, it seems that six of the ten tracks are great collaborations, and the other four are not. As a result, Lights sounds incomplete and inconsistent, and doesn’t work as a whole. One can forgive Goulding for releasing something hastily in the face of pressure, and with the right exposure of the right tracks, hopefully she will get the acclaim and success she deserves. But next time ‘round there will be no excuses.