Intersections posts

ALBUM REVIEW: Ellie Goulding — ‘Halcyon’

I’m sort of confused. I thought for a minute I was listening to some old Florence + the Machine B-sides. Then I thought I was listening to one of the film soundtracks and scores I put on in the background when I need to focus on schoolwork. Then I heard some thudding Euro-electronica that smacked of Calvin Harris and things got really weird. Turns out I was listening to Ellie Goulding’s new album all along. Huh. Go figure.

After the jump, I continue to be less than satisfied and mostly confused with Halcyon, the newest effort by Ellie Goulding.

Ellie’s latest is…experimental? Atmospheric? Interesting? Maybe? Two days of listening to it and I’m still confused. What’s your play, Ellie?

With the warpy, headcase moodiness of Halcyon, I’m nothing but confused. Songwriting and songcraft appears to have been entirely submerged to sound. From album opener “Don’t Say A Word” to pre-released “Anything Could Happen”, Ellie’s voice is used not to convey thoughts, images and longings but as an instrument, and little else. It gets chopped, warped, distorted and pulled through electronic trickery as though it’s just another guitar sample. It’s a sin against a voice that can and has stood well enough up on its own. We’ve seen overeager production threaten the integrity of an artist’s sound before, in the case of another British girl with a unique voice, but Florence Welch’s voice had enough whimsy and swagger to stand up against it and her producers were wise enough to leave enough room for her to breathe.

Speaking of Florence — as the entire world has heard and loved not one but two albums from her, Ellie’s Halcyon is in a bit of tight spot. Comparisons are immediately obvious, especially since Ellie appears to be using many of the same piano-strings-voice tricks Flo has perfected. Nothing in Ellie’s new bag of tricks is actually new.  Florence also avoided many of the traps Ellie has fallen into. Every track on Lungs and Ceremonials was crafted as a song, as a lyrical vehicle for some feeling. Too much of Halcyon sounds like the music in car commercials or montage scenes.

Halcyon‘s issues run deeper than flawed attempts at a different sound, though. As an album, it’s criminally inconsistent: it starts slow and peaks in a grandiose anthem (“JOY”, all caps) too early, before falling into a steady slide of a denouement with too many slow, spacey meditations that don’t quite get the pacing right. And then at the end of the album, a Calvin Harris remix and, inexplicably, perpetual chart-topper “Lights” appear. What?

Something I’ve been dreading for years is the transition from early Ellie, that random British girl with the floaty voice who could pull yearning out of a simple girl-with-guitar moment like nobody else, through gentle Elton John and Passion Pit covers that brought her YouTube hits and a devoted Internet following all the way through to Lights-era Ellie who married her coffeeshop compositions with slick (over)production values that catapulted her to stardom, tours, TV spots and a casual gig at the royal wedding. I’ve seen a steadily slide away from songwriting and the simple human emotion of an acoustic set into electronica/dubstep grind, and I as a loyal listener, fan and concertgoer have been dragged kicking and screaming with her. All I want is an acoustic album or an acoustic set, Ellie, to prove there’s still a girl with a guitar in there somewhere.

Track-by-track

1. Don’t Say a Word
The Flo comparisons start right off the bat. There’s none of the drive and charm of Ceremonials‘ “Only If for a Night,” though, just a lot of half-sentences, distorted buzzing and monk-like chanting.

2. My Blood
This one might be the most obvious of Ellie’s attempts at Flo lite. She slips into a lower register and then floats back up, belts over a twinkling piano line in the chorus and employs some Grace Potter-like Americana vocalizations towards the end. Again, though, she misses the point: you can copy Flo’s sound, but you need her words to match.

3. Anything Could Happen
After flirting with Flo through two tracks, we slip abruptly into an electronica romp. This might not be the radio-ready single “Lights” was, but it’s certainly more listenable than the headspace we’re served elsewhere. It still, however, suffers from the sound-over-songcraft messiness that plagues the rest of the album. Verses are nice (After the war we said we’d fight together / I guess we thought that’s just what humans do), but the refrain is, sadly, nothing but an electronic thud and Ellie chanting the title over and over and over…could’ve benefited from, y’know, actual songwriting through the chorus.

4. Only You
This track is the worst of the distorted-voice crimes. What starts out with promise and drive falls flat in an empty chorus yet again. “Starry Eyed” worked because there was substance to the verses and, wisely, enough tempo to keep it going. This fails on both accounts.

5. Halcyon
Here’s something interesting: a return to a focus on her voice. The repetitive chorus detracts as usual, especially when the same stormy chord progression that’s been running through every track comes back, and the rest of the production is unconvincing, but still — I’m glad I get to hear just sing.

6. Figure 8
Much of the same doom-gloom production. At least this one has a bit of a cohesive drive. Too bad it sounds exactly like it’d fit in on Flo’s Ceremonials, if Flo was suddenly seduced by the dubstep drop. With an edit, this’ll probably end up on the radio, if only for the chorus.

7. JOY
The standout track; the only one that seems worth it. Can’t wait for this to end up in a commercial, or in a stadium somewhere. They finally get the pacing right here, and there’s enough room afforded to her voice before the crescendo to work.

8. Hanging On
When “Hanging On” was released early I actually thought to myself, “Damn, I hope the rest of the album isn’t exactly like that.” That wasn’t because this is bad, but because it’s a cleverly crafted dubstep-dropped stormy skyscraper of a song, and I could easily envision an album full of things trying to be it.

9. Explosions
Moody downtempo strings sadness. We’ve heard this before, and it’s not Ellie’s strongest suit.

10. I Know You Care
Moody, Elton-style piano meditation. Still not really her strong suit.

11. Atlantis
Starts with Ellie’s trademark impossibly high vocal line, slips into a cloudy miasma of tinkling sounds and soaring vocals that don’t really sound like anything. Am I listening to a car commercial?

12. Dead In The Water
Organ. Moves too slowly. Avoiding the obvious pun here.

13. I Need Your Love (Calvin Harris remix)
Calvin Harris, Prince of the Throwaway Dancefloor Anthem, works some much-needed basic pop magic onto this track, reminding us that all we really needed from her all this time was that voice. She’s got that unique ability to make meaningless Saturday-night platitudes sound good. That said, this track is just that: entirely meaningless. I’ll put it next to Rihanna on my pregame playlist, but that’s about it.

14. Lights – Single Version
Why is Lights on this album? Ellie herself seems bemused by how it’s still hanging in there on the charts. Was this an afterthought? Why?

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