For fans of the electronic instrumentals and lilting voice behind the major dance hit “Lights” — with or without the Bassnectar remix — British import Ellie Goulding is back with a new sound in her sophomore studio album Halcyon.
Signed in 2009 to Polydor Records, Goulding’s first single “Under the Sheets” reached number 53 on the U.K. Singles Chart. After releasing two other digital singles, “Guns and Horses” and “Wish I Stayed,” Goulding began to garner major industry attention.
In 2010 Goulding won the Critic’s Choice Award at the BRIT Awards, which led to Goulding’s debut and U.K. number one album Lights. Later that year, Goulding re-released Lights as Bright Lights with six new tracks, one of which was “Your Song,” a cover of an Elton John song that Goulding would perform at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding reception.
Ever since the release of Lights, listeners have been enraptured by Goulding’s hauntingly complex musicality. Both of the album’s singles, “Starry Eyed” and “Lights,” are built upon relatively simple narratives filled out with soaring vocals and ferocious electro-dance beats. The single “Lights” has sold 3 million copies in the United States, spent two weeks as number one song on the Top 40 radio charts and was ranked in the top 10 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Now, more than a year later and after riding the ups and downs of fame, Goulding returns with an album that reflects the maturation of her emotions since Lights. Halcyon, ruminating on heartbreak and desolation, very closely resembles the truly aching, tentative and tumultuous journey to joy.
“Anything Could Happen,” Halcyon’s first single, represents classic Goulding. Reminiscent of the hook-driven, powerhouse singles of Lights, “Anything Could Happen” creates an emotional rollercoaster of euphoria tinged by uncertainty and doubt. A pounding beat buoys the insistent chants of “Anything could happen” and “I know it’s gonna be” in Goulding’s signature soprano, propulsing the song to a climactic finish à la “Lights.” This single has the makings of a Goulding dance hit — one of the few tracks on this album that echoes the electronic style on Lights.
Besides “Anything Could Happen,” fans of Goulding will enjoy “Figure 8,” as it is the most electronic song on the album. Starting slow, it delves into full dubstep soon after. “Figure 8,” however, is missing the playfulness of “Starry Eyed” and “Lights.” The massive amount of radio play that propelled “Lights” to number one seems unlikely for “Figure 8.”
One of the first songs to be released from Halcyon, “Hanging On,” features Tinie Tempah, an artist Goulding has worked with before. The track is a cover of an Active Child song and cleverly combines electronic, dance and dubstep into a musical masterpiece that emphasizes Goulding’s effervescent singing. Here, Goulding’s vocals save a song dominated by Tinie Tempah’s jarring rapping.
The namesake of the album, “Halcyon,” slows things down. The track lacks Goulding’s signature driving beats, instead focusing on her hushed, soft-spoken vocals. “Joy” is another slow ballad, lovingly sung with a choir in the background. Both beautifully constructed songs show just how much Goulding has matured since Lights.
“I Know You Care,” provides another slow and somber number. The track will likely remind listeners of “Your Song” from Lights: The track is stripped of all dance-music production, spotlighting Goulding’s melancholic voice against a piano melody. “I Know You Care” shies away from bells or whistles, achieving a breathtaking simplicity.
Halcyon offers much for both old and new fans of Goulding, even though some tracks aren’t as innovative as others. “Atlantis,” for example, is a forgettable track that faces an identity crisis between simplicity and over-production. In addition, the first track on Halcyon, “Don’t Say a Word,” seems bland for an opening song despite a throbbing drum beat that drives the melody. The track seems to serve solely as an introduction to other, more substantial songs.
“My Blood,” “Explosions” and “Only You” all follow the same pattern: pulsing beats layered with synthesizers and Goulding’s cascading vocal symphonies. This formula works, however, as all three songs will likely become hits. Though these tracks don’t resemble Goulding’s previous singles, they remain catchy and affecting.
Halcyon closes with “Dead in the Water.” This track ends a album on the devastating note describing a woman searching for her lover who has died in the ocean. Though the song remains stark and riveting, the track lacks replay value. The song appears to work more for Goulding’s growth as an artist than for popular enjoyment.
Goulding’s sophomore album doesn’t focus on the party-playing tracks and seems more emotionally compatible with deeper heartbreak fare. As Goulding has grown and changed, her sound has matured and darkened.
But, as the album’s listeners will soon realize, this isn’t necessarily a negative change. Halcyon’s break-up style flaunts Goulding’s versatility, making the album a somber complement to the upbeat Lights.
In this case, the artist’s lyrics might reflect losses, but the listener certainly gains.