Singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding crafts unique sophomore album
Album Review | 4 out of 5 stars
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 07:10
Ellie Goulding’s most recent album bears a rather misleading title. “Halcyon,” the British singer-songwriter’s second release, does not, in fact, invoke nostalgic feelings of idyllic happiness. Instead, Goulding’s new record is more like a splash of cold, harsh reality to the face.
The singer-songwriter herself agrees with this assessment.”Giving it that name does seem a bit ironic because it’s quite a sad album,” the singer admitted on her website.
Though listeners will be hit with a fair share of tonal, lyrical heartache and sorrow, the experience is ultimately refreshing. Goulding’s sophomore venture is anything but stale. The thirteen-track compilation is essentially a musical miscellany: each song is a collage of sounds, a melange of instrumentation ranging from cascading harp notes and subtle piano to synthetic percussion and crisp chimes. Playing over everything is Goulding’s breathy soprano voice, a voice that manages to be simultaneously ethereal and soulful, velvety and rough. This is no ordinary pop production: Goulding has created an album that is both distinctive and compelling, an invigoratingly honest glimpse into her world.
“Halcyon” opens with “Don’t Say A Word,” a particularly unconventional lead-in. The beginning is long and relatively quiet: In fact, a full 45 seconds pass before any actual words are sung. The first minute consists of an almost inaudible, scratchy “static” noise played behind Goulding’s eerie, echoing vocals. The track sounds slightly Middle Eastern, as if Goulding were singing in a remote, barren desert. A haunting, solemn spirituality fills the first few measures until finally, in the second minute, it picks up with the entrance of a driving, almost tribal beat. The pulsating percussion continues for the remainder of the song, beneath a conglomeration of synthetic reverberations and Goulding’s airy, layered vocals. Altogether, “Don’t Say a Word” makes for an interesting introduction, captivating listeners right from the get-go.
Goulding’s fourth track, “Only You” is also quite unusual. The song starts with a strange dissonant humming from Goulding that serves as the background rhythm. The humming is reminiscent of the incessant buzzing of an Australian didgeridoo or the South African vuvuzelas. While it’s not entirely pleasing to the ear, this beginning is nonetheless intriguing. And like “Don’t Say A Word,” the middle of “Only You” marks an escalation to a more electronic sound. Despite this upbeat twist, the song’s lyrics are raw and painful. “Only you can be the aching in my hear / My enemy
/ Only you can see the emptiness I feel / When you’re with me,” Goulding chants bluntly. Ultimately, the song relies on simple repetition: the first line reappears three additional times in less than four minutes. It is this minimalism that makes “Only You” so innovative and unique.
Following “Only You” is the album’s title track, “Halcyon.” Musically, “Halcyon” is the polar opposite of its predecessor. The light plucking of an acoustic guitar gives way to the delicate tinkling of a muted xylophone. The cacophony that is “Only You” contrasts sharply with this enchantingly melodious composition. But thematically, “Halcyon” is just as, if not more, melancholic. Here, Goulding delivers another tender account of a relationship on the brink of collapse. “When it’s just us / you show me what it feels like to be lonely / you show me what it feels like to be lost,” she sings. A mournful ode to a dying love, her performance is poignant and heartrendingly emotional. Though she later asserts, “[It’s’] going to get better,” the audience is unconvinced. That snippet of hopefulness is not enough to counter the generally sorrowful nature of the song.
Yet there are some moments on “Halcyon” where optimism shines through. The album’s first single, “Anything Could Happen,” is one of the more traditionally poppy tunes on the record. A synthetic bass-line vibration along with low, quick-paced piano chords set a lively tempo. This cheerful rhythm and Goulding’s perfectly cadenced voice propel the song forward into an almost euphoric chorus. Over a joyful series of “ooh’s,” Goulding exclaims that “anything could happen!” With this blissful declaration, Goulding leaves her listeners with at least a little positivity.
Though most new artists experience a “sophomore slump,” Goulding has far surpassed expectations for her second artistic endeavor. Despite the album’s serious and somber nature, Goulding prevails with musical diversity and powerful vocals. Both unusual and inspirational, “Halcyon” is certainly not to be missed.