Ellie Goulding: Lights | CD review

Ellie Goulding's threat of an acoustic-pop fusion raised the spectre of past follies. But her debut is busy mercilessly chasing down much bigger targets, writes Alexis Petridis

It may not have been a vintage year for music, but if nothing else, the 2010 Brits offered a bumper harvest of pathos. There was courageous Samantha Fox proclaiming that she was "going to get it right tonight", then announcing the award for the "most ­rememorable ­performance of the last 30 years". There was Geri Halliwell ­demanding "Where are they now?" of Kula Shaker; a woman whose last solo single reached No 41 five years ago mocking someone else's faded commercial fortunes.

And there was Ellie Goulding from Herefordshire, winner of this year's Brits ­critics' choice award. Whisked backstage after the presentation to be interviewed ­before ITV's cameras, she stood sandwiched between Halliwell and Courtney Love, while Fearne Cotton bellowed at her. The 23-year-old looked a little discombobulated, which frankly seemed to speak volumes about her ­immense cool-headedness and self-­control: a lesser woman would have taken one look at the company she now appeared to be keeping, dropped her Brit like a hot brick and scrambled over the nearest wall, back to the relative sanity of the Welsh Marches. It was as if persons ­unknown but of wicked intent had noted Goulding's regular protestations of ordinariness in interviews – "I'm quite normal," she kept saying to the Observer's Paul Morley recently – and decided to offer her a cautionary glimpse into the future. You're quite normal? Maybe now. But look at these three. This is what close proximity to the music industry does to people.

The other thing Goulding keeps ­saying in interviews is that it's her intent to meld folk and pop, via the electronic ministrations of producer Starsmith. It's an announcement that could make a strong man wake up in a cold sweat. There's a wealth of empirical evidence to suggest melding folk and pop is a bad idea. The case for the defence might cite the Byrds' effervescent Turn! Turn! Turn!, but the case for the prosecution could be there all night, showing the jury terrible, disturbing things: men with beards and ingratiating smiles ­singing If I Had a Hammer, footage of the Strawbs performing their horrible rightwing anthem Part of the Union on Top of the Pops. You hear Goulding banging on about melding folk and pop and think: Jesus, keep your voice down. We've only just got over the swine-flu pandemic: you keep going on like that, and they'll have to set up a government helpline to deal with panicked calls about a potentially lethal outbreak of All Around My Hat.

So it's hard to know how to feel when you actually play Goulding's debut album and discover that the folk music she's talking about is not of the finger-in-the-ear variety, but just general acoustic singer-songwriter material. The relief, given pop-folk's gruesome history, is tempered by a certain is-this-it? ­disappointment: you could argue that tricking that stuff out with synths and samples has become pretty commonplace over the last decade or so. At the risk of ­invoking the kind of comparison that might also cause Goulding to scramble over the nearest wall and head back to Herefordshire – that is, after all, what Dido did. In fairness, Lights is infinitely more upbeat than ­Dido's oeuvre (the beats tend ­towards house music's four-to-the-floor thud rather than trip-hop, the electronics deal in brashness as opposed to cocooning warmth), but there's no getting around the fact that Goulding's appeal is aimed squarely at the middle of the road.

Hers is a kind of Boden catalogue pop. It's all well made – you'd have a hard time arguing that Starry Eyed, with its stop-start dynamics and killer chorus, isn't a high-quality bit of kit. It's ­confidently presented by someone with a clear understanding of their market: any sympathy you might have felt ­towards Goulding as a result of the vast ­expectations placed on her shoulders evaporates the minute opener Guns and Horses begins. Rather than an ingenue thrust into the limelight too early, she sounds like a woman who knows exactly what she's doing. There's nothing there to frighten off the less adventurous ­consumer, and you'd never, ever confuse it with the innovative cutting edge of fashion. It's worth noting that the comparisons to Björk seem to have more to do with the odd vocal inflection around the vowels than the restless musical spirit that informed Debut or Post. If Lights is Björk, it's Björk abridged, with the really interesting bits blue-pencilled.

You can see why it's so hotly tipped. Lights boasts a kind of effortless ­commerciality: hip enough for Radio 1, mainstream enough to get played on ­Radio Maldwyn, back hear home. But those interview protestations of ­ordinariness weren't false modesty so much as statement of fact. Quite normal is exactly how you'd describe Lights.

• This article was amended on 4 March 2010. Due to an editing error, the original said Ellie Goulding came from Powys. This has been corrected.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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