REVIEW: Ellie Goulding – ‘Halcyon’
By: Ben Norman
Who is Ellie Goulding, really? I mean, Wikipedia tells us she’s a 25 year-old soprano from London. That really doesn’t say much, though, it’s just facts. It doesn’t convey a personage, not the way the act of expression that is music can. We also know that Ellie Goulding has been riding the same song, rather successfully, for almost three years now, and for some reason “Lights” never really gets old. That’s one song, however, and can you really establish the identity of a singer from one song? While “Lights” has been introducing Ellie to fans across the globe and sneaking into the pop mainstream like a slow-moving ninja, it wasn’t really a fantastic representation of her 2010 album of the same name, nor is it a calling card to what her new album, Halcyon, contains. “Lights” is what allowed her to create Halcyon though, and it is an influence on what some of the tracks aim to achieve. But at the end of the day, who is Ellie Goulding, really?
If we base it on Halcyon, she is a troubled, lost, and emotional young woman. Her vulnerable voice sounds stronger in the lower registers, coming out as a cry for help, a breathy admission of weakness in her higher registers. She doesn’t belt, she coos almost. This instrument is used almost as electronically as the synthesizers and drum machines; her voice being manipulated in whichever direction she or her producers want it to go, pulled like taffy. Sometimes this works in her favor, sometimes the music overwhelms. It’s such a small detail, amidst everything that is going on in Halcyon. Goulding ranges from electronica to piano ballads and just about covers everything in between, for better or for worse. Mostly for better.
Halcyon in itself is easily placed into the ‘Pop’ category, and it definitely belongs there. Being close the electronic age of music’s Vanessa Carlton, Halcyon boasts what must be Goulding in her element. The album is chock full of funky little tidbits that make songs that might not be instant hits crackle with electricity instead. Tracks like “Anything Could Happen” and “Only You” have vocal manipulations as background accents, giving both touches of memorability, that ‘thing’ that makes pop songs what they are. And with tracks like “Hanging On,” “Halcyon,” and “Atlantis,” all of the elements are there- but as with Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away,” an additional bit of mixing to gear it towards radio would go a long way. Additionally, there’s plenty of ubpeat fodder that could do well on playlists from fans or on radio alike. Goulding’s collaboration with Calvin Harris is an obvious choice, “I Need Your Love” showing Harris tone down his production style to more of a support role, the effect yielding a more rambunctious Goulding track than “Lights.” And the party is just picking up there, the beats and vibe carries through “Ritual,” “In My City,” and “Without Your Love.” The deluxe version takes us through an emotional gauntlet before depositing us into a retrofitting of dubstep-heavy “Hanging On” (now featuring Tinie Tempah – as if that was necessary), and then into the single version of “Lights,” as if to remind us what brought us here in the first place.
Not everything is an exercise in excess. For part of the album, Goulding drops the dance beats and dubstep, takes off the pop princess tiara and dons a singer-songwriter hat instead. “Dead In The Water” is a gorgeously-orchestrated trip through a cold, murky musical landscape. “I Know You Care” just features Goulding, a piano, and a chorus of people probably hidden in another room just to pop out for specific moments. Other tracks like “JOY,” “Don’t Say A Word,” and “Explosions” start off simplistic and mellow before erupting into frenzies of percussion and tension. And with only the slightest hint of dubstep ideas incorporated, “Atlantis” is pensive and emotional enough to qualify as a step away from pop. The only real dark horse of the album, a track that doesn’t really fit in with the others (perhaps save “Hanging On”) is “Figure 8,” heavily-influenced by dubstep as it “wub-wubs” from chorus to chorus, backing off to simple percussion and a harp melody before the dubstep crushes back in. If Kerli did dubstep music, it would sound like “Figure 8.”
So at the end of the album, the question of who Ellie Goulding is still remains mostly a mystery. She loves, she longs, she loses, and she does it all with an edge to her music that just might make Halcyon one of the albums to look out for this year. Or those little tweaks that made tracks like “Anything Could Happen” (which is already impacting US radio and a top 10 hit in the UK) or “Without Your Love” so entertaining may just come across as trying too hard, or too generic, and Goulding will end up a one-hit wonder. I am going to support the former, and call shenanigans on anyone who believes the latter.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Disclaimer: Review copy provided by record label. Image courtesy of Interscope records.