On a recent drive to Traverse City, MI, I heard Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” no less than six times on the radio, and unlike the fourth time I soaked up Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, I didn’t turn it off. Blame it on the English singer’s stylish pop lacquer or her knack at threading hooks within hooks, but her U.S. breakthrough single has yet to burn out. Then again, it only properly surfaced months after her 2010 debut of the same name, and then took years (!) to float up the chart, having actually broken records in the process. In that time, however, she’s become a global icon: performing at Prince William’s wedding reception, eloping with EDM rockstar Skrillex, and amassing millions of new fans at major festivals worldwide. Her latest album, Halcyon, sounds like a celebration of all this — except on paper, it reads like the lost diaries of Alvy Singer.
“I’m caught in the crossfire of my own thoughts” (“My Blood”); “Only you can see the emptiness I feel when you’re with me” (“Only You”); “When it’s just us, you show me what it feels like to be lonely” (“Halcyon”); “Still not too old to die young” (“Figure 8″); “I think of dying all the time” (“Joy”); “I just don’t know what is wrong” (“Hanging On”); “I lacked the things you love the most you said” (“Explosions”); ”So now I’m just saving myself from a ruin” (“I Know You Care”); “I’m exhausted with loving” (“Atlantis”); “Why didn’t you find me?” (“Dead in the Water”), she croons, belts, groans, whispers, and cries all throughout Halycon. Seriously, does this not sound like a script reading of Annie Hall or, what’s worse, Manhattan? Someone close — preferably not Sonny Moore — needs to sit her aside and simply ask, “Hey, what’s up?”
Or maybe not. In the time between Lights and this, Goulding has consistently indicated her sophomore venture would be an emotional one, dating back as early as March 2011. “It’s started to sound very dark and very weird,” she told Dean Piper’s World. “This album is going to be even more emotional – I’m all about emo. Captain emo over here! I wanted to make it so there is hope. I want to make an effect whether it’s happy or sad.” Okay, so she’s had this mission all along, and she’s no doubt launched one bummer missile of angst here with Halycon. There’s an overwhelming weight of self-deprecation that moves only slightly faster than her bewildering sense of optimism. Current single “Anything Could Happen” encapsulates this emotional disparity, where she acknowledges the lingering darkness yet embraces the unknown with positivity. Thanks to its biblical rhythms, which strangely sound primed for Michael Angelakos, Goulding keeps the lamp on.
That’s when her near bi-polar emotionalism works. Such success carries over into the album’s titular track, which sports one of the most rousing climbs in her short catalogue, where she insists, “It’s going to be better/ it’s going to be better.” These radical, earnest glimpses sparkle with a sheen that’s wholly redemptive. She maintains this authority quickly after on the galloping bruises of “Figure 8″, a defensive track that finds her reasoning with her scorched paths (“It’s a dangerous equation, but I keep my pace”). Producer MONSTA is credited on this last one, as is Mike Spencer, whose work with Jamiroquai or Kylie Minogue injects a scenic quality that bludgeons with cinematic density.
Halycon mostly trips when it’s retreating to well-worn territory. The stormy minimalism of “Don’t Say a Word” or the conflictive Southwestern beats of “My Blood” stir up urgent waters and exercise Goulding’s vocal strengths earlier on, overshadowing much of the lyrical nature within. The album’s latter half, however, zeroes in on the slower fluff, gliding over keys or strings or dreamy loops, and it’s really then that Goulding’s burdens and laments tire. A couple twist by unscathed (“JOY”, “Atlantis”), but a rough handful heavily weigh on the eyelids (“Explosions”, “I Know You Care”, and “Dead in the Water”). Also, her cover of Active Child’s “Hanging On” may have charmed over the summer, but within the context of the album, it serves as a rerun of ideas, which is somewhat remarkable considering the words belong to Pat Grossi and Patrick Okogwu.
In today’s era of pop, where computers find the soul for winning contestants, it’s hard to scoff at Goulding, whose sole problem on her record is being too emotionally redundant. Granted, she could have eschewed some of the self-flagellating tragedies for more English roses, but she didn’t. Instead, she carved out an album that sounds exactly how a modern pop record should, complete with human weaknesses and synthetic production that smells like new action figures (or, fresh leather interior for the adults). With help from the album’s core producer Jim Eliot, Goulding proves to have a death-grip-grasp on today’s sound, similar to M83’s Anthony Gonzalez but dissimilar in that she’s still miles away from his keen foresight. That’s just it, though: Halcyon works for this hour, but it’s tomorrow that Goulding should be emotionally torn over. To be fair, I’ve also yet to turn off “Anything Could Happen”.
Essential Tracks: “Anything Could Happen”, “Halcyon”, and “JOY”