Artist: Ellie Goulding
Halcyon is a bit of a conundrum. The second album by English artist Ellie Goulding, it is a graceless ode, though heaven knows it does try. Perchance it’s a bit misguided, or even something of a try-hard as the individual elements of these songs are precious all on their own; it’s when they’re clumsily bound together and set to an ever-ascending phalanx of voices that things tend to come undone. It certainly doesn’t help that a substantial portion of this sounds like Goulding listened to Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials, thought she could do one better, and then decided to crash into it at full speed with her effects tables. While the influence can’t be faulted – Ceremonials is a breathtakingly eloquent piece of work – the execution must be, as its grand ambitions ultimately come to naught and end up creating quite a bit of a mess.
Halcyon is irritatingly contrived, hopeful enough to aim for excellence but forgetting the age old maxim of less is more. The bones of songs with terrific potential are festooned and accessorised to the death with cascading symphonic effects, keys, guitars, and percussion; hell, probably even a few rose petals. Goulding’s voice is piercing and sweet but she’s so girlish and gamine a presence that it’s like adding a fluffy pink carpet to a room that’s already drowning in precociousness. Her lyrics have merit, but it’s hard to get close enough to take them seriously. Everything’s so obfuscated by needless detail that you have to hose the glitter down to find the substance.
As a result, true insight is rare on this record. This is unfortunate, as Goulding does have tremendous talent and infinite potential to do better. Her missteps here, notwithstanding the above, seem to largely stem from a lack of identity. A number of potentially brilliant ideas are explored – there’s even a cross-reference through dubstep – but all in a very experimental, precarious manner that leaves no room for clarity or precision. It doesn’t help that Halcyon’s opening songs, “Don’t Say A Word” and “My Blood,” are the two which evidence the most obvious links with Florence and the Machine. Both have their moments, but it’s difficult to warm to something that (deliberately or otherwise) sounds so much like a careless devolution of a beautiful original. By contrast, when Goulding sheds some of her more mystical pretentions on “Anything Could Happen,” she ends up clothing a pop song in wisps and air. It’s floaty and wondrous, but fails to convert its vision into something convincing. The influx of synth, as is often the case throughout this record, is too harsh, drowning the song in cheap predictability.
Goulding only really succeeds when she adopts a more stripped-back approach. Parts of “Only You” and the atmospherics of “Hanging On” benefit tremendously from the light touch with which they’re rendered. In a gentler environment, the pristine, earnest quality of her vocals is allowed to shine. There’s a naturally fragile, almost childlike air to the way she sings and this alone is enough to endear on many of her tracks. While exploring more diverse instruments and sounds can bring out some of the nuances in her voice, many of these attempts come across as too heavy-handed on this album. “I Know You Care” and even the title track “Halcyon” are all the better for the resolution and urgency she brings solely with her vocal performance. Unattended, she’s capable of far greater heights than any of the celestial aspirations springing from the slew of backing choruses and instrumental embellishments.
The intent is, it seems, far nobler than the end result. Goulding’s willingness to experiment is commendable, and she’s certainly not one to rest on her laurels. Even after the heady Florence and the Machine-like sounds that opened the album, there are cantankerous and even gritty offerings elsewhere. It’s doubly unfortunate then to find that the same flaws undo these tracks as well. “Figure 8″ features a beautifully ominous overture, its bulbous tones laden with bitterness and regret. However, cross-referencing it through something akin to bubblegum dubstep was never likely to do the original concept justice. “Explosions” gets lost in metaphor, like some kind of perpetually twisted fairytale. The piano in particular stands out but the song as a whole is too cold and doesn’t involve the listener. The music sounds emotional, but it never seems to translate into actual feeling and this makes it alienating. Brief moments of reflection that should come across as timid and trembling seem confused, a criticism that could likewise be levelled at the burgeoning cacophony of “Only You.”
While not exactly a casualty of sophomore album syndrome, it seems fair to say that Ellie Goulding hasn’t done herself justice with this record. It’s capable of much more and would probably have found time to say it were it not so busy over-complicating every tiny detail. It has its moments and it’s worth a listen, but lacks the coherency, richness and staying power of her debut.
Review written by Grace Duffy