The opening bars of Ellie Goulding’s “Halcyon” seem less the work of a nascent British pop sensation than from the bizarrely eclectic Björk. Creaky amplifier feedback fades in and out and is soon joined by a haunting, wordless vocal melody. From this eccentric start, Goulding defines her newest album as not only a continuation of the synth-heavy, danceable sound of 2010’s “Lights” but as an evolution. In her sophomore work, Goulding presents a well rounded set of songs that shares many stylistic attributes of her first album yet effectively integrates a variety of new elements. Though “Halcyon” at times suffers from overly thick production, it maintains the catchiness of “Lights” while also evidencing Goulding’s artistic maturation.
Goulding immediately establishes her stylistic flexibility on the opening track, “Don’t Say a Word.” After the eerie, Björk-like intro, the song explodes with a heavy bass drum and layers of riffs. The second verse features Goulding almost whispering over a wavering synth line; when the chorus drops, a group of background vocalists and the huge bass re-enter. These diverse elements integrate beautifully.
“Anything Could Happen,” the album’s first single, shows Goulding’s development as a songwriter in terms of music as well as lyrical themes. Its peppy sound is driven by bright, rhythmic piano chords and short vocal “oohs” that form the infectious main riff. Where “Don’t Say a Word” explores a darker palette, “Anything Could Happen” is an outpouring of exuberance. The title is not, however, an expression of the infinite potential in a new relationship as the cheerful music would have one believe; rather, the song’s climax comes as Goulding proclaims, “I don’t think I need you.” She transforms what seems the soundtrack of innocence into a triumphant expression of losing naïveté and letting go.
It is here that Goulding’s most powerful strength, her voice, becomes particularly apparent. She possesses the vocal strength to conquer huge choruses as well as the clarity to convey all of her lyrics with emotion. Unlike many British artists who Americanize their vocals (such as fellow pop diva Adele), Goulding preserves every bit of her West London inflection. And, as in “Anything Could Happen,” Goulding uses her voice as a rhythmic and harmonic instrument throughout the album to great effect. These potent flourishes serve to define her unique and innovative style.
Despite its numerous strengths, however, “Halcyon” is not without significant flaws. The songs are often overcrowded with dense instrumentation, leaving little room for the beauty of Goulding’s voice to shine through. On “Atlantis,” Goulding layers not only harp and synth sounds but also thick background vocals; together, they detract from the song’s development and clutter a pretty melody. “I Need Your Love” and “Hanging On” also fall victim to heavy-handed production: the former covers its vocal line with dark effects, and the latter is completely dominated by a blaring synth. The recurrent heaviness damages the flow and cohesion of the album somewhat, and but is relieved by the album’s more subdued moments, which include the pleasantly quiet (albeit somewhat boring) “I Know You Care.”
But these weaknesses by no means compromise the evolution that defines this album. In “Lights,” Goulding clearly established her danceable, electro-pop sound; in “Halcyon,” she smoothly incorporates aspects of folk, dubstep, and indie rock, and succeeds in combining all of her influences to create a distinctive musical style. “Halcyon” leaves room for improvement, but is a step in the right direction and will undoubtedly find its way onto the radio.