Photo Credit: Madison Phipps
Ellie Goulding has made a point of describing her fifth album Higher Than Heaven as her “least personal album” to date. In an age of pop music geared towards the confessional and emotionally weighty, many fans have welcomed Goulding’s embrace of a pop ethos that prioritizes massive hooks, earworm melodies, and larger-than-life choruses over all else. The less generous might posit that the move results from the failure of Goulding’s previous, and most personal, album Brightest Blue to generate any smash hits.
Most of Goulding’s commercial success thus far, at least in regards to her singles, has arisen mostly from a series of flukes – two bonus tracks, “Lights” and “Burns,” becoming two of her most identifiable numbers, while another “Love Me Like You Do” is a Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack addition that she didn’t write. On Higher Than Heaven, Goulding attempts to perfect the pure-pop formula and strip good pop songcraft down to its very essence – a purposeful attempt to create a smash hit after smash hit.
Higher Than Heaven fares best when Goulding fully commits to the ecstasy of big-budget pop music. Minus a superfluous Big Sean feature, “Easy Lover” is a great pop anthem that likely would have enjoyed far greater success if it was released a decade earlier. The chorus is euphoric and larger than life – one of the few moments where the album is all the better for the laundry list of co-writers and producers enlisted by Goulding and her label. Lyrically, it fully commits to the “least personal” label, as Goulding shrugs off a relationship that was “never easy” because she is “only young.”
Elsewhere, Goulding takes her cues from the wave of ’80s-inspired synth-pop that has dominated this decade of popular music so far. But, Goulding seems conflicted between committing to the euphoric disco music of Jessie Ware’s That! Feels Good! and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, or the dark, sultry synth-pop of The Weeknd (a direction already hinted at by her Fifty Shades hit). At its best, this splitting of the difference results in music that is enjoyable, if not thrilling. “Midnight Dreams” is a fitting, glossy opener, whose slick production and tight form are a testament to Goulding’s position at the highest echelons of pop music. The breezy “Like A Savior,” meanwhile, captures the high hopes of new love, as Goulding boldly declares, “You got the power to change my life.”
But it doesn’t take particularly long before Goulding’s music hits a wall. The best pop albums have real stakes, real hearts, and real personalities – it’s this sense of depth and meaning that makes the release of those big, euphoric choruses all the more rewarding. Without this, the music of Higher Than Heaven begins to fade into a pleasant but aimless fog. By the time we get to “Love Goes On,” even Goulding sounds bored as she repeats a mindless litany of “on and on and on and on.”
Though there are no real moments of depth in the frictionless sound of Higher Than Heaven, there are hints of such in the lyrics – references to “toxicity slipping to my bloodstream” and complicated relationships that our narrator can’t untangle themselves from. Fully explored, and with a more fitting sonic backdrop, these lyrics could be the foundation of a compelling pop song. Instead, they feel out of place and speak to a better path not taken. A more cynical critic might even argue that, in moments of lyrical laziness, Goulding has copied metaphors, motifs, and descriptors from other artists’ more evocative pop songs (a reference to “invisible string” on the opener recalls the Taylor Swift song of the same name, while talk of “driving through the suburbs” post-breakup on “Let It Die” evokes Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License”).
Though Goulding has previously penned affecting, personal songs – 2020’s “Flux” stands out – such songs are anomalies rather than the norm in her catalog. For this reason, Goulding lacks the massive, dedicated, para socially invested stan base of her peers. Those who are dedicated fans clearly come to Goulding for carefree, melodic pop songs. If Higher Than Heaven will fail to excite a wider audience – and fail to generate the massive hits intended – it should at least please those fans.