Album Watch: Immersed In Ellie Goulding's 'Halcyon'

Friday, October 12, 2012

"Tranquil", "joyful", and "prosperous" are just a few of the synonyms that describe the namesake of Ellie Goulding's second release. In the case of Goulding, 'halcyon' means a period of peace and clarity, the meditative calm that occurs after a storm has depleted. Mirroring these concepts and modifiers to some effect, Goulding has swathed Halcyon in this gospel, but in an ironic twist, the album is anything but placid and lighthearted.

No longer is Goulding 'starry-eyed' or the bubbling over pop pixie as she did on her charismatic 2010 debut, Lights/Bright Lights. Trudging through a thicket of moods, Goulding fixes her drama queen crown on and has Halcyon play up the dramatics as it submerges itself in waterfalls of synthesizers and tribal beating percussives, yet directionless she isn't, as she is quite at home in this swirling emotive.

Halcyon is quite condensed, so much so that it is polarizing at first listen. It's marinating in dub-step, with sweeping arrangements and Goulding catching the holy ghost every once in awhile as she wails away on that unique high-pitched vibrato of hers. It's pretty damn angst-y, with journal scribbled introspectives that are fit for the Millennial crowd, and do tap on the kicking and screaming that comes with entering adulthood. As you hear the pounding refrain of "it's going to be better" in the up-swirl of the title track, it's clue to know that Halcyon is all about Goulding fighting against the current of not only the befallen romantic liaisons she's been in, but how she views herself in the aftermath. This super emo attitude does pack a weight on the album, dampening some of the material and making it a right chore for others, still Halcyon wears its flaws and complexity well, and wrapped up in a neat bow it is not (thankfully).

Lead-off single, "Anything Could Happen" was proof that Goulding was getting technical with her material, as it's a textured pop track that wears many guises once you peel back each layer and soak in each strident "e-e-e-e". In a sense, a lot of Halcyon's material plays that way, as a whole it's not something to come with fluidity. We are a warned by the opening of the minimalist drum march of "Don't Say A Word" as it sets the album up in the abstract limbo that it's in.

When Goulding is forthright and catches the 'spirit in the dark' she rises and her voice becomes taunter and assured. She stands tall in the Florence & Machine inspired and spiritually guided, "My Blood" which is a startling and superb woebegone number that feels the fullest of the numbers here. She gets her soul on the infectious "Only You" that is saddled with a frenzied middle-eight that abruptly takes the song in a different, but pleasing direction. Matching this is the Gospel tinged "Joy" and the flexing of Kate Bush themes on the timid "Atlantis", and even with the orchestral backing she is allowed to take a breather and reflect out of the insulated synth-heavy sounds.

Favorite and single hopeful, the Mike Spencer produced "Figure 8" sprints in on a heavy dosage of dub-step, and is easily the catchiest track present. It's a real showcase for Goulding as when the track builds and builds it then zooms through a tunnel of squiggling synths to its finale, and what a damn rush it is. This is thanks to Spencer whom has done the cinematic fare for the likes of Jamiroquai, Kylie Minogue, and oh yeah, "Figure 8" next-of-kin, Alex Clare's "Too Close" (what has this song not influenced in the '12?).

While beginning strong, Halcyon sort of dips down further, becoming weightier when numbers like the cerebral "Explosions" and upcoming single "I Know You Care" drift in. Even though there is a reprieve with her Active Child rekindle, "Hanging On" (sans Tinie Tempah) and Calvin Harris perks things up with the grooving and palpable synth explosion, "I Need Your Love", Halcyon still feels down in the dumps, and if the mood doesn't strike, an arduous process it is to chew and swallow the album whole.

Even though riddled with qualms and down-beat vibes, for Halcyon Goulding can rest assured that with several gems encrusted here and her attempt to actually grow within her sound sketches (something some big name artists fail to even do) that she leaps over the dreaded sophomore slump descriptor.

Halcyon is in good company with the likes of other 20-something femme angst albums (see Lykke Li's Wounded Rhymes, Adele's 21, and Delilah's From The Roots Up) that give sight that Goulding isn't alone in her thought that the 20's aren't the necessarily the best times of your life, but, (and to paraphrase the legendary Zora Neale Hurston) they are the years that ask questions, with the answers waiting in the wings. Goulding asks these questions and seeks these answers through Halcyon, and with a listen or two you might have the urge to tell her to 'lighten up', but after you seep into it, you'll have to hush yourself and just let the Church of Goulding have her say.

Release Date: October 9, 2012
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