Ellie Goulding’s ‘Halcyon’: Album Review

Sam Lansky | October 9, 2012 5:30 am
Ellie Goulding has always dealt with unfairly high expectations. Best known in the US for her breakthrough single “Lights,” Goulding was already a star in her native UK after winning the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brit Awards and the BBC Sound Of… poll in 2010, making her only the second artist in history to do so. (The first was Adele.) Goulding’s debut album Lights was rich with crystalline hooks — lush folktronica with a clear pop sensibility — and the re-release, Bright Lights, refined that recipe even further, mooring her fragile, ethereal voice to crisper synths and dance beats. But it wasn’t until after that release that “Lights” became a stateside hit, making her best-known sound in the US one from which she was already evolving.

On Ellie Goulding’s Halcyon, due out , she departs from that winning formula with a sound that’s more organic and less catchy. It’s an album that, at times, feels stubbornly artistic, even though the craft in a song with a chorus as infectious as even “Lights” — which is still far from Goulding’s best track — is more impressive as the weird vocal loops and idiosyncratic flourishes that fill up this album. Halcyon is still excellent, and it still feels like Ellie. It also may leave some listeners wanting. 

There are clear hits on Halcyon, and there are frustrating near-hits that ultimately just feel like misses. Goulding’s quirky jangle of a lead single, “Anything Could Happen,” is sweet, charming, and ultimately a little bit dull — like the sonic embodiment of Zooey Deschanel. The ballad “I Know You Care” is lyrically rich — penned by Lana Del Rey‘s “Video Games” co-writer Justin Parker — but the simple piano-and-choir production is so spare that it turns somnolent. Throughout, vocals are processed and filtered in lieu of instrumentation, which is a curious motif. It works best on the gorgeous “Explosions,” and less so on “Don’t Say A Word,” which just feels chaotic. “Only You” is somewhere in between, thunderous and electrifying but bereft of the kind of earworms that would make it compulsively replayable.

Her collaborations are interesting, although the mix of “Hanging On” without Tinie Tempah is superior to the mix with him (forget repaying the favor for giving him the hook on “Wonderman” — here on Goulding’s own turf, he’s just a distraction). The much-touted Calvin Harris collaboration, “I Need Your Love,” is as blindingly effective as it is by-the-numbers. It knows exactly what it’s here to do (big house beats for the club!), and it does it well.

The title track, with its plucked guitar beat and “When it’s just us, you show me what it feels like to be lonely / You show me what it feels like to be lost” hook works impressively at creating a mood of wearied longing, and “Figure 8” gives the obligatory concession to dubstep, with production by MONSTA serving as effectively, if not more so, than Goulding’s boyfriend Skrillex himself would have done. But as happens so frequently now, some of the best material is on the bonus tracks. The exhilarating stomper “Stay Awake” was helmed by French production wunderkind Madeon and, of all people, Makeba Riddick, best known for her work on epic Rihanna and Beyonce bangers. On “Without Your Love,” she teams up again with Starsmith, who worked on the bulk of her debut, for big tribal beats that and fuzz-soaked production that’s as urgent as anything on Lights.

On the other side of the pond, Goulding’s debut was met with a middling critical reception, perhaps because its MOR leanings disappointed pop snobs anticipating something weightier. With Halcyon, Goulding has finally become the alt-pop princess the critics were expecting all along. That’s fine, just as long as she doesn’t alienate fans who have been waiting for something to sing along to.

The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “My Blood” is nothing short of extraordinary: The stomping drums gives it an eerie portent that’s magnified by her soaring, dissonant vocals in the chorus, as shrill and alarming as a bird’s cry. It’s not just as good as anything she’s done before — it’s better.

Pops Like: Florence & The Machine‘s maximalist grandeur with a voice that’s half as powerful but probably cooler.

Best Listened To: Whenever there are glittering lights overhead. Goulding remains the twinkliest artist in pop.

Full Disclosure: Halcyon‘s hooks can’t hold a candle to Lights, but Goulding is so damn talented she can’t help but make good music. It’s still better than most of what you’ll hear this year.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sam Lansky