Review Summary: Halcyon's beautiful aesthetic carries it a long way, but the polish eventually wears off.
Especially since the juggernaut that was Adele’s 21, the UK’s been in the spotlight for producing and exporting talented female pop singers in droves. Recently, Marina And The Diamonds, Charli XCX, Florence Welch, Katy B and numerous others have all had their share of successes, but arguably, at this point in time, none are as prominent in the genre as Ellie Goulding. Halcyon, released late in 2012, manages to accomplish the goals of every sophomore album – it both improves on Ellie’s debut and shuts up anyone who would consider calling her a flash-in-the-pan.
Opening the record with “Don’t Say A Word” is a bold move, in that it lacks a conventional hook; its chorus is the words “if you never” chanted repeatedly. It’s hit-potential is zero and instead it serves more of an introductory purpose for the album’s ethereal, sparkling, fairy-synth-pop aesthetic. Ellie’s fantastic voice accentuates this fresh and unique vibe with its yelps, whistles and dips into falsetto, all executed with the vocal agility and effortlessness of a seasoned professional.
From track 2 though, the hits come one after another, and they hit hard. “My Blood” has a soaring chorus, which admittedly is an overworn phrase in pop music, but it raises the bar with a truly stratospheric chorus. “Only You” thrives upon its snaky, soulful vocal loop and is a testament to Goulding’s own production skills, while “Figure 8” is a chart and club destined, dubstep-tinged smash. These are the album’s major highlights, yet the pairing of slower songs “JOY” and “Hanging On” showcase the versatility and incredible range of Ellie’s voice, the former with its choral harmonies and consonance and the latter with Goulding's desperately vulnerable falsetto during the line “I just can’t keep hanging on” in the chorus.
Sadly, as fantastic as some of these early tracks are, they result in a front-to-mid-loaded record, and the final third of Halcyon falls, as the closing track announces, relatively dead in the water. “Explosions”, a head-scratcher of a choice for third single, feels in many ways like a less-spectacular retread of “JOY”, and is forgettable in a cluster of down-tempo tracks. “I Know You Care” and “Dead In The Water” are sparse ballads that do little other than over-affirm the bleak lyrical theme of the album, with lines like “why can’t I dream”, and “I’m there in the water, still looking for you” being heartbreaking, yet this late in the tracklist, somewhat derivative.
Throughout Halcyon, Ellie Goulding is content to allow her voice to fit into the atmosphere of her productions as an instrument, rather than a guiding force. This makes for some stunning hits early in the album, but songs later on yearn for Ellie to take the wheel and for her personality and vocal charisma to shine through.