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Ellie Goulding, ‘Halcyon’ – Album Review

Ellie Goulding
Cherrytree/Interscope Records

Ellie Goulding‘s hit single ‘Lights’ has the dubious honor of being one of the slowest-climbing songs to ever reach the top of the charts. ‘Lights’ debuted in the Hot 100 in May 2011 and finally reached No. 2 this past August — 15 months later. The leisurely success of the song, a highlight of the British singer’s 2010’s debut album of the same name, put plans for her follow-up LP, ‘Halcyon,’ on hold.

Now that ‘Lights’ is finally winding down its chart reign, ‘Halcyon’ comes on like a more elaborate, and sharper-edged, version of her debut. Like ‘Lights,’ Goulding’s voice is the centerpiece of ‘Halcyon.’ But she’s more open to darker beats and lyrics, which guide the songs into illuminating new areas. We’re guessing her boyfriend Skrillex had something to do with that. Then again, she had plenty of time to tighten the details. Here’s our track-by-track breakdown of the album’s 14 tracks (deluxe edition).

1. ‘Don’t Say a Word’
‘Halcyon’’s opening cut drifts through nearly two minutes of mood-building atmospherics before Goulding steps up. She’s reserved at first, but eventually soars through the song’s last minute or so with the pop smarts she exhibited so strongly on ‘Lights.’

2. ‘My Blood’
‘My Blood’ wastes no such time finding its groove. A marching beat drives the song, which stomps straight into Florence and the Machine’s gothic backyard. The chants near the end are a bit heavy-handed, but ‘Lights’ didn’t exactly make its rep by being subtle.

3. ‘Anything Could Happen’
The album’s first single is also its best song, a straight-up blast of pop confetti with monster synths tying together all the different parts. Goulding’s quivering voice bridges ‘80s New Wave with modern-day pop. It’s like Lady Gaga for Anglophiles. [Listen Here]

4. ‘Only You’
One of ‘Halcyon’’s most adventurous songs is also one of its slipperiest, working through a number of studio tricks – another marching beat, bass dropouts, chipmunk vocals – before they disappear altogether, leaving Goulding to go it alone for the last few seconds.

5. ‘Halcyon’
The album’s title tune is the most reserved song on the album. An acoustic guitar runs through the entire track, a celebration of loss and loneliness. At least Goulding sounds hopeful by the end of it.

6. ‘Figure 8’
The album’s darkest and most brooding track is also one of its most disposable. Despite some sweeping piano chords and a needle-to-the-red chorus, Goulding never really connects with the song. The dubstep-inspired breakdown is kinda cool, though.

7. ‘Joy’
This mid-album ballad comes off more like an excuse for Goulding to go all ‘American Idol’ big on the chorus than anything else. There’s not much to the song, a skeletal melody framed by strings and a choir.

8. ‘Hanging On’
More studio tricks here, with layered vocals that slip in and out of the mix. Goulding’s voice hits some mighty high notes, but it’s usually at its best when it plays along with the skittering production instead of riding on top of it. Still, one of the album’s best songs.

9. ‘Explosions’
Another album highlight, ‘Explosions’ is a much better ballad than ‘Joy,’ trading over-sung choruses for moody ambience. It’s also one of ‘Halcyon’’s more subtle cuts and a fine showcase for Goulding’s pipes. [Listen Here]

10. ‘I Know You Care’
The album begins to lose some steam here, with another ballad, which places unwanted focus on Goulding’s main problem: She’s not much of a lyricist. She’s at her best when she surrounds herself with flickering beats and busy production that deflect her somewhat elliptical songs about love. [Listen Here]

11. ‘Atlantis’
Goulding channels Kate Bush on this celestial ballad that juggles barely there verses with a chorus that piles on orchestral strings, an angelic backing choir and various blips and beeps. It’s ‘Halcyon’’s most overcooked track.

12. ‘Dead in the Water’
‘Halcyon’’s closing song earns its spot with another slow-building groove. Like the previous two cuts, it’s a ballad, but the minimalist touch and layered vocals are much welcomed after the bombastic ‘Atlantis.’

13. ‘I Need Your Love’
The first of two bonus tracks on the U.S. version of the album is a duet with Scottish electro-pop producer and DJ Calvin Harris (the song also shows up on his new album). It doesn’t really fit in with the rest of ‘Halcyon,’ but Goulding sounds great.

14. ‘Lights (Single Version)’
The single version of Goulding’s breakthrough hit closes ‘Halcyon’ as a bonus track. It seems kinda pointless, since anyone who cares enough about Goulding to make it all the way through this album probably already owns ‘Lights.’ Still, it is her best song.

Next: See Ellie Goulding on the Cover of Paper Mag

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