Rose Elinor Dougall makes pop music, but not as we know it in 2017. Her full-band aesthetic and commitment to sophisticated songwriting might unfortunately keep her out of the chart chase, but it’s their loss. Her first album in seven years is a timely reminder that you can make broad, accessible songs without sacrificing or disguising your intelligence.
Dougall took a strange, winding path to arrive here. After experimenting with commercial glam-pop in her teens with the brilliant KLF-inspired group The Pipettes, she left to pursue an individual career. 2010’s debut Without Why was a deliberately introverted reaction to that band, showing more of herself than would previously have been plausible. It led to a linkup with Mark Ronson, with whom she toured the world for over two years. She has described the process as having liberated her to taking on new forms of expression with her writing and performing, ultimately leading her to produce an altogether more expansive and confident album.

She worked closely with Oli Bayston (aka Boxed In) in recording the album and the two share an optimistic, major-key disposition and a devotion to crisp, jeweled production values. The title track served as the album’s lead single, although such is the strength of the first half of the record that one assumes they just picked it out of a hat. A galloping bassline duels with jiving synths and a rippling guitar part, whilst Dougall’s honeyed melodies gambol over them. It toys with the playfulness of 60s sci-fi electronics, building a wash of sound that would be worthy of a Stereolab release.

The album is packed full of such goodies. Opener ‘Colour of Water’ features a long instrumental intro that asserts the importance of the studio band – this is a solo album in name only. ‘Strange Warnings’ is a song that first saw release a full four years ago, which is emblematic of the difficulties that Dougall had in securing the right platform for Stellular’s release. It’s another pop stomper, but for good measure features a deliciously spacey breakdown towards its end that sends the listener out of their pop delirium and into a jittering reverie.

Amidst all the poptimism, however, there is a lingering sense of the loss of something. On ‘Take Something With You’, she sings, “Now that you finally saw it wasn’t all that you thought it could be/I wonder if you’ll never find what you’ve been looking for”. She may simply refer to the sticky process of growing up, but there is a murmur of anger at the changes in her native London too. She’s seen a generation of dreamers come and go and now bears the scars of it. The melancholic sentiment meshes with the relentless sunshine of the music, though, in an endearingly Belle & Sebastian fashion, and the party continues regardless.

The formula is shaken somewhat with the slightly more sinister, synth-driven ‘All at Once’, which showcases a more lascivious, deviant side of Rose’s character. ‘Answer Me’ is an indie power ballad, written with Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt (a friend from the Mark Ronson tour). She even lets another voice in on the action on the duet ‘Dive’ with Bayston himself. But these are minor kinks in what is a pretty consistently paced and styled record. By the end of its twelve track running order, the format is familiar, perhaps too much so. ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘Wanderer’, for example, struggle for space amongst the other more muscular earworms.

After a frustratingly long absence, Stellular feels like something of a coming out party for Rose Elinor Dougall. For a long time, many have hoped that this was the album she was capable of producing. Finally, she has stepped out into the light, her outward-facing confidence having infused her music with a timeless joy.