Ellie Goulding has always had two equal and opposite moving parts: little acoustic guitar or piano love songs and enormous electronic dance compositions. While these discrete impulses occasionally exist separately, one producing a set of ballads and the other a series of dancefloor stunners, Goulding is at her best navigating the interstitial spaces between these two equal and oppositional forces. It was, after all, her first single demo, “Wish I Stayed” that began with a simple acoustic guitar progression before layers of synthesizer collided in what was one of 2009’s best and most promising unsigned choruses.
However, there aren’t straight lines between your first recordings and becoming a legitimate pop star, the latter a pantheon only a few degrees below Robyn and Florence Welch; there is no clear path to dating Skrillex. On her sophomore LP, Halcyon, a title that refers both to a glittering future and a more carefree past, Goulding sounds torn, ragged and personal. Her vocals are leveraged against the most ambitious and complicated arrangements of her young career. Goulding can still produce the emotional car accidents and life-saving hooks that colored her demos and debut album, but the balancing act lies in whether she can satiate these twin original impulses, to be both big and small in the same breath—and in the same song.
Goulding endeared herself to fans, at least in part, because of a brand of emotional honesty that is, at times, almost uncomfortably specific; a diary of painful losses recast as slamming electronic moral victories. Better yet, and this methodology continues on Halcyon, she mastered a sort of lyrical fatalism. She was comfortable discussing her own death and destruction in the machinery of relationships and love that seemed at once both in and out of her control. It’s no surprise that her Twitter profile asks, “Do you want my heart between your teeth?” The Tweet is, like the singer in question, at best, remarkably public and remarkably personal.
Goulding is back at her most carnal on Halcyon‘s second track, “My Blood”, where a cloud-clearing chorus has the singer near the top of her range and backed by a full choir as she refers to “all the blood I lost with you.” This fatal physiology appears again on “Only You” where Goulding repeatedly insists, “Baby, I’m on my knees”, fronting an arrangement of glittering synths and soul vocal loops (the instrumental track could hold its own on Moby’s Play) with lines like, “the only animal I couldn’t fight, you hold me in the dark when storms arrive”; it’s a metaphorical surrender to the twin emptiness of love and heart ache.
On string-soaked ballad, “Explosions”, she admits, “I’ve taken a blow to my face” and “you left my soul bleeding in the dark”, the song’s title referencing the same sex-is-death metaphors of her 2010 single, “Under The Sheets”. It leaves one feeling a bit voyeuristic, as listeners come to see Goulding dying on double-entendre lyrics like, “I need to know I can still make explosions/on the day you wake up needing somebody.” Despite this brand of emotional rubber-necking invoked in listeners, Goulding’s talent for pouring herself onto the pavement is unique for its dignity, resilience and repetition. Halycon‘s last track is “Dead in the Water”, a sort of obvious allegory about sailing and love, about being alone, her pathos left to float dead in this sea of strings and backing vocals. She sings, “You’ve heard this story before,” an unwitting nod to, “Salt Skin”, the last song on her debut record, where Goulding ran and ran (and sweat her “Salt Skin”) to capture the object of her affection, but was left heaving and unrequited. It was a wonder her heart didn’t burst.
In the midst of all this carnage, Goulding slips between her small acoustic roots and her clear desire to make a monolithic contemporary pop record. “Anything Could Happen”, the album’s third track has a piano progression in its DNA, though it explodes into a late-night club burner in the spirit of the recent florescent tank top fixation with EDM. While Goulding never shied from the dance floor, “Anything Could Happen” proves she could easily back herself away from her microphone, holding her hands up in the mock-triumph of the modern DJ as her song rides ebullient under its own power. It’s unsurprising that Goulding recently shaved the side of her head in solidarity with these modern conventions.
On “Hanging On”, a slower composition, the arrangement still shifts in and out of dub-step inspired breaks, Goulding sounding miles above the sawing synths and menacing bass below. “Figure 8” follows the same pattern, the conclusion revealing the most direct Skrillex influence on her songwriting. Even the album’s title track, at times breathing like a ballad, finds itself transitioning to the dance floor on a chorus and final movement ripe for remixing by her part-time collaborator, Starsmith. The ballads, of course, appear in subordinate measure. There are truly slow meditations like the piano and choir driven “I Know You Care”, a song so steeped in sentiment that it was used in the trailer for a forthcoming Dakota Fanning movie about dying of terminal cancer. Goulding does her vulnerability trick well here and on “Dead In the Water”. But the singer estimates this isn’t always the best way to reach you, exploding the slow opening of the album’s first track, “Don’t Say a Word” into a haunting anthem which would make Florence Welch proud.
Clearly more comfortable beating her wings and soaring to the top of the room than sitting at her guitar or piano, she similarly turns second-to-last song “Atlantis” into a crystalline search party, emphasizing the lyrics, “Where did you go?” as the arrangement booms beneath her. Goulding, it’s presumed, isn’t looking for her stool-sitting acoustic guitar arrangements of 2009, here.
The supposed success or failure of Halcyon, a record without a true radio single, boils to Goulding’s doubling of her impulse to take her listener and her emotional tragedies into an elegiac nightclub. Or, put another way, here Goulding makes the choice between church and the dance floor, and largely choses the latter. The result is pathos on steroids: the pain more acute and the tragedies more dramatic, the breaks more broken, the second movements more soaring. You will be killed and raised again, exactly the sort of messianic absurdity that often creeps into second records spent deciding if an artist can remain the same or if they must transfigure into something else. On Halcyon Goulding amplifies her music genealogy, both who she is and who she’s been, in what is an often successful attempt to transition to iconic stardom. Her grasp of the moment is real and important. The outcome is a bit flawed and a very loud version of her biggest and smallest self.