Ellie Goulding's harmonic divergence

The dance-pop singer doesn't fit into a box, and that's a good thing

Back in January, British pop/dance vocalist and songwriter Ellie Goulding announced her latest project: not a follow-up to her 2012 album Halcyon, but the soundtrack to director Neil Burger's upcoming film Divergent. According to Goulding, the movie won't simply use her songs but will employ the singer as the "musical voice" of its main character, with Goulding's vocals woven throughout the soundtrack.

The film is scheduled to open on March 21, the day after she performs at the Fox Theatre here in Atlanta. But that's not the most notable thing about her involvement with this first installment in a projected blockbuster franchise.

For the uninitiated, Divergent, based on author Veronica Roth's hit Young Adult novel of the same title, is the tale of Beatrice "Tris" Potter, an adolescent who discovers that she doesn't fit into one of the five "factions" into which society has been split based on moral standards. Instead, she shares traits of three different factions, a status known as "divergent." Tris is warned to keep this a secret. In the near-future Chicago of the novel, being "divergent" is seen as a bad thing.

Goulding can probably relate. Ever since her 2010 full-length debut, the million-plus-selling Lights, it's become increasingly clear that the 27-year-old performer isn't just another club girl singing prettily over sparkly beats. Although she does that well; "Lights," one of seven new tracks added to a reissue released later that year and rechristened Bright Lights, soon became a ubiquitous dance-floor staple.

With her powerful soprano, her facility for appealing electronic pop, and her penchant for adventurous flourishes and stylistic detours, Goulding quickly became a household name overseas and a "next big thing" stateside. Her follow-up album, Halcyon, cemented both of those statuses, establishing her as a powerful dance-pop voice given to swirling between EDM anthems, art-pop experiments, and indie-folk singer/songwriter terrain.

But while it certainly sounded interesting, and made a largely favorable impression (earning a 69 score for "generally favorable reviews" on Metacritic), the album prompted some critics to question whether the singer's genre bending came at the expense of a consistent identity. Once again, appearing "divergent" — failing to fit comfortably into a specific box — was framed as a negative.

The British newspaper [http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/album-ellie-goulding-halcyon-polydor-8197787.html|the Independent and, closer to home, Pitchfork quickly pointed out the lyrical and musical similarities to the work of fellow British hit maker Adele, particularly on "My Blood" and "Only You." Elsewhere, as on the jagged opener "Don't Say a Word," the increasing levels of bombast and baroque atmospherics seemed to invite comparisons to Florence and the Machine.
The latter association makes a certain amount of sense, given Goulding's professed admiration for the likes of Florence Welch and Bjork. There is unquestionably a middle ground to be found somewhere between those idiosyncratic performers and Adele's everygirl resonance (and her savvy, contemporary spin on the adult contemporary format).

The problem — if it can be framed as such — is that she doesn't yet fully inhabit that middle ground, and instead flits between those poles, and a few others. This makes a valid point. There's something to be said for sticking to what works, like the anthemic uplift of a stomper like "Anything Could Happen" or the nightclub buoyancy of the likable single "Burn" (from Halcyon Days, last year's repackaging/reissue of Halcyon). As Pitchfork noted, such stylistic hopscotching can give the appearance of opportunism; that Goulding is trying on different genres "in the hopes that one will take root" commercially.

"Goulding can certainly inhabit a soundscape," that same review conceded, while rightly bemoaning the relative weakness of her more folk-inclined ballads. "Her next step is to inhabit just one."

But is that really what we want from our pop stars? To aspire to mastering just one thing? And is that really what we want from the likes of Goulding, a capable songwriter and charismatic presence who knows her way around a hook? There are already too many pop singers for whom experimentation and artistic growth consist of donning ever more elaborate costumes, or tweaking Middle American notions of race and sexuality by dressing like a rag doll and comically appropriating dance moves that come across as more embarrassing than empowering.

Wouldn't we rather err on the side of a talented, if occasionally uneven, performer more interested in finding, and refining, her musical personality? One who's willing to swing for the fences with a wealth of diverse and ambitious influences rather than keep churning out approximations of her previous hits? One who claims an encyclopedic knowledge of dance genres and still carries enough mainstream appeal to sing at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton? And who, based on her cover of Alt-J's "Tessellate" alone, clearly has a better record collection than Miley Cyrus?

It's certainly true that Ellie Goulding has yet to record a masterpiece. Her more emotional lyrics can flirt with banality, and Halcyon can pile on moments of flashiness and intensity that threaten to drown the listener. On top of that, she's been romantically linked with the likes of dub step producer Skrillex and, rumor has it, one of the lads from One Direction. But for all her imperfections, she's a gifted and engaging talent worth following. Not in spite of the fact that she's "divergent," but because of it.]