In an era when one well-timed viral hit can launch a star seemingly overnight, Ellie Goulding’s ascent to pop’s upper echelons was a remarkably slow burn. Her breakthrough single, “Lights,” was first released in her native England in 2010, but it took more than two years for the song to crack the Top 5 in the U.S. During that time, she performed at William and Kate’s wedding reception, sang for the Obamas at a White House Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony and bridged the gap between Lady Gaga and Mumford & Sons by marrying stylish electro-pop with a folk sensibility. (“Figure 8,” from 2012’s Halcyon, might be the only song on record to pair a harp with a dubstep beat.)
Goulding turns up the heat on her third LP, Delirium, out now, but the only fever she’s coming down with here is of the Saturday-night variety. She stacks the album with one dance-floor banger after another, but instead of diving head-first back into the world of EDM—where’s she had success with a pair of Calvin Harris collaborations—a road-tested Goulding called in the big guns to assemble songs she hoped would translate live. (Good call: she recently announced she’s touring arenas stateside next year.) Greg Kurstin, who recently produced and co-wrote Adele’s comeback single, “Hello,” and Max Martin, the Swedish hitmaker behind recent No. 1s from Taylor Swift and alt-R&B lothario the Weeknd, have credits on all but two songs here.
The collaborations let Goulding soar, but they also put her in a little bit of peril. Delirium is her slickest and hookiest album to date, one that doesn’t take a breather until her Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack smash, “Love Me Like You Do,” arrives past the halfway point. Releasing an album with 16 tracks on a standard edition alone usually takes for granted listeners’ patience, but Goulding’s clear-eyed, full-hearted relationship dispatches on songs like “We Can’t Move To This” actually keep things moving.
Yet with her collaborators’ ubiquity comes familiarity, and even the airy texture that makes Goulding’s voice so distinct can’t keep some songs from sounding as if they could have belonged to her producers’ other clients. Between Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez and Adam Lambert, pop has enough whistle-driven songs to make the wordless hook of “Keep on Dancin'” feel a little redundant. And once Goulding mixes the more club-oriented material with lyrics about stumbling in and out of hotel rooms and throwing back drinks, it’s easy to think of one of those clients—the Weeknd—in particular. (Though in 2015, offering the glossy, female-empowerment alternative to Abel Tesfaye’s bad-boyfriend hedonism is hardly a bad look.)
Thankfully, Goulding retains some of the weirdness that has set her apart from the steady stream of pop exports pouring in from across the pond. On “Don’t Need Nobody,” she warps her vocals into an ominous siren just before a tremoring chorus hits. Lead single “On My Mind,” will be on yours too after layers of repetitive vocal fragments and guitar loops build to one catchy conclusion. They’re more than infectious enough to hold their own atop the charts. If Goulding is lucky, she won’t have to wait two years to get there this time.
A version of this story appears in the Nov. 16 issue of TIME, on newsstands now.
- These Charts Show COVID-19 Is Still the Pandemic of the Unvaccinated
- Reddit Allows Hate Speech to Flourish in Its Global Forums, Moderators Say
- What It Takes to Get Support for a Black Boy With Special Needs
- Shonda Rhimes Already Knows What You're Going to Watch Next
- How Harry Reid Paved the Way for Democrats to Kill the Filibuster
- President Biden's Speech in Atlanta Was Designed to Appeal to Black Voters—But Not Everything About It Succeeded
- China Is Finding Fewer Reliable Sources of Coal. That Could Be Bad News for the Climate