After Beyoncé‘s classic Renaissance, the bar has been set very high for records that pay homage to disco and house. For Ellie Goulding, the prospect of following up that album with her own may not have been as daunting, given that throughout her career, she excels at sparkly dance-pop and synth-driven neo-disco. On her latest LP, Higher Than Heaven, Goulding shows that she’s a consistent hitmaker, able to choose the best collaborators to show off her talents. None of the songs on the album is especially groundbreaking, but it’s all done with an accomplished, admirable competence. Ellie Goulding has nothing to prove five albums in, and Higher Than Heaven is a solid set of tunes that will extend her string of catchy pop tunes.
Goulding takes her cues from dance-pop stateswomen like Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Sophie Ellis Bextor, and Janet Jackson. The singer marries sweet lyricism with glossy, shiny dance-floor bangers. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable album, one whose ambitions are simple yet direct: to entertain and to get people to move. Looking like a kind-of playlist of Millennial dance music, the album’s tracklist boasts flashes of nostalgia and the kind of neon-glow of 1980s revival synthpop that is currently en vogue. We can also hear influences of house-pop, R&B, and 1990s-era diva-pop. This music is crafted with expertise and an unfailing eye for catchy hooks and hummable lyrics.
In interviews, Goulding has suggested that Higher Than Heaven is her least personal record – a ballsy admission in an industry that prizes introspection (even if it’s calculated and feigned). Instead, Goulding has assembled a gang of songwriters and producers who create stylish, sophisticated songs that lift her high above her competitors and peers. What’s so great about Higher Than Heaven is that it moves quickly and furiously, never slowing down for a ballad. It’s a dance party that is a joyful run through the different kinds of dance music people of Goulding’s generation moved to at proms, nightclubs, and slumber parties.
Though Higher Than Heaven is a thoroughly modern album, it’s clear that Goulding looked to 1980s MTV-era synthpop for inspiration. Listen to the brooding, large-scale “By the End of the Night” and its urgent drive – it would sound entirely at home on either the soundtrack for Pretty in Pink or Stranger Things. “Like a Savior” has a thumping, strutting percussion that recalls Pet Shop Boys or Modern Talking. “Just 4 U” is a propulsive electropop song that sounds like the best of her retro-synthpop. For the all-important opener, Goulding chooses the clever and canny “Midnight Dreams”, which glances at both 1980s synthpop and 1970s disco.
The record’s lyrical content is blissfully free of pretentious “singer-songwriter” seriousness and instead embraces the light of the best of dance music. As an antidote to the still-difficult times we’re experiencing, an escapist fantasy like Higher Than Heaven is more than welcome. It’s a sugary, effervescent experience that’s timely in its vibrance.
Aside from the excellent set of songs, the other main selling point is Goulding herself. She has a sexy purr of a voice; it’s a sweet, pretty croon that fits snugly in the flashy, splashy production. She’s distinct enough of a vocalist that even if some of the songs start to bleed into each other or sound a bit monotonous, her charisma and talents shine through, making even the most rote of Higher Than Heaven sound pretty special. Following the intense ambition of her previous album, 2020’s Brightest Blue, Higher Than Heaven is a refreshing jolt of candy-coated vigor.