Despite my unconditional girl-crush on ELLIE GOULDING, I've never really considered her the strongest of vocal-talents. Radical synth-slinger? Yes. But a powerhouse in the realm of singing? No. But as it turns out, Goulding has been holding out on us all. On her second studio album 'HALCYON', Ellie unleashes a kaleidoscope of diverse vocal-strengths - from belting out a 'Joy'-less number that rivals the vocal acrobatics of Mariah Carey, to the [almost] a cappella bridge of 'Anything Could Happen', and experimenting her way through the upper reaches of her register in 'Atlantis'.
'Halcyon' is a multi-layered, wondrous thing - like a jig-saw puzzle of earnest refrains and galaxies of heartache, that synthesise a painfully self-aware portrait of someone who has come to realise that with great success also comes great loneliness. Ellie says that: "Loneliness has been the biggest influence on this record; I feel like what I do is lonely." On the flip-side, 'Halcyon' is also the sound of a girl with tireless tenacity: "I still feel like there's this force, pushing me to do this." It's this tempest of emotions that breathes new life into Goulding's songwriting, with the 'Halcyon' album playing out like a capricious rollercoaster of soul-searching, when at times her debut record 'Lights' sounded stark and methodical.
The first few bars of the album's opening-track 'Don't Say A Word' are misleading - although literally accurate - Ellie faintly hums along to atmospheric tribal-sounding-synths. She reminisces "well if you never say anything, if you never said anything..." and a full wall of sound kicks in, driven by urgent heartbeat-like drumming. However, the song finishes on a more uplifting note with "I will leave your words behind now..." - reflective of the album's namesake, a fabled bird from Greek legend that could calm the sea in order to lay its eggs in a floating nest. Ellie has been open about 'Halcyon' being a break-up album and the end-result of overcoming writer's block: "There was a period where everything felt stale. I wasn't writing, I wasn't reading, I wasn't taking anything from the experiences I was having. Usually I can walk down the street and just absorb everything; but there will also be times where there is this complete block, and that's how I felt. And then when my relationship broke up, that all suddenly changed, I went to the countryside and just wrote and wrote. I had to make a decision in my head to close off one thing and open another. Once I did that, I realised how much I had to write about."
Goulding's favourite song on her new album is track two 'My Blood', which showcases the obvious heartbreak in her voice as she sings: "The feeling that doesn't go away, just did. I walked a thousand miles to prove it. And I'm caught in the crossfire of my own thoughts. The colour of my blood is all I see on the walls as you sail from me." But she's still hopeful: "And God knows it's the only way to heal now. With all the blood I lost with you, it drowns the love I thought I knew." It's a testament to Ellie's strength of character, her stubborn determination to overcome and triumph.
Fans will already be familiar with the hook of 'Only You' which was featured prominently in the 'Halcyon' album trailer: "Only you can be the aching in my heart, my enemy, the only animal I couldn't fight, you hold me in the dark when storms alight." It's just as good in full, with crazy-catchy vocal refrains layered on top of each other and a Grimes-esque bridge. It's up and down, with vocal-highs then vocal-lows, and inventive instrumentation - this is Ellie v2.0 at at her best.
The album's title-track 'Halcyon' is the only song on Ellie's new record that is reminiscent of her debut album 'Lights' with its guitar and strings backing - a fitting progression for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter who has superseded several evolutionary steps with the reinvention heard throughout her new full-length. About titling the album 'Halcyon' Ellie says: "Giving it that name does seem a bit ironic, because it's quite a sad album. But then the songs that are joyous are so joyous. And it's such a beautiful word." And as you will hear, even the lonely songs have hope... Ellie concludes that "it's gonna be, it's gonna be better..." in the chorus of 'Halcyon' [the song].
Track six 'Figure 8' makes use of harp-plucking flourishes, centring around a synth-laden chorus, which of course draws a [lazy] comparison to Florence + The Machine. Ellie muses: "Breathe the smoke into my lungs. In the back of the car with you I stare into the sun, still not too old to die young, lovers hold onto everything, and lovers hold on to anything."
If Goulding performs 'Joy' at her upcoming New Zealand shows, there is sure to be nary a dry eye in the room. Amidst wistful piano solos, vocal trills aplenty and a gospel choir acting as back-up, Ellie laments that: "I figured out that joy is not in your arms, I know I'll always say it with an empty heart. I think it's time to run because I'm seeing stars, I'm seeing stars watch me fall apart." Likewise, track ten 'I Know You Care' is similarly stripped-back to just piano-accompaniment, as Ellie narrates memories of "two lovers locked out of love". You're heartless, if you remain unaffected after hearing either of these songs.
"Took a blow to my face, I've loved and I've lost..." sings Ellie on the evocative track nine 'Explosions', which might as well be the tagline for the entire album. She addresses her antagonist with: "I need to know I can still make explosions. On the day you wake up needing somebody, and you've learnt it's okay to be afraid, but it will never be the same."
Goulding showcases the spine-tingling upper reaches of her voice with the high-pitched first verse of track eleven 'Atlantis', building up to a dynamite chorus, and breathless verses: "I can't help it, you make my heart so helpless." This will be thrilling live, for sure.
The album's closing-track 'Dead In The Water' is a self-possessed epic with a church organ intro, treading water deliberately away from the eye of the storm, to further explore halcyon breakwaters. Ellie was inspired to write the song after reading about a couple walking peacefully by the sea, only for the husband to be swept away on the tide. She sings: "If I was not myself, and you were someone else, I'd say so much to you. And I will tell the truth 'cuz I can hide the grief and your hands let go of me, the ice is thinning out and my feet brace themselves. I'm there in the water, still looking for ya, I'm there in the water, can't you see, can't you see? You've seen this all before, life left on the shore. We're smiling all the same, you sail away again, I'm there in the water..."
I know it's only October, but I'm calling it now... 'Halcyon' is my Album Of The Year. What more could you want in a record, but stormy sagas back-to-back alongside empowering earworms? Technically, it shouldn't work. But [magically] somehow it does.
MUST-LISTEN: 'Only You', 'My Blood', 'Explosions', 'Dead In The Water', 'Anything Could Happen'.
HEARTOMETER: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 + 1/2 [ out of 10 ]
YOU WILL LIKE, IF YOU LIKE: Marina and the Diamonds, Florence + The Machine, Grimes, The xx, Lights, Oh Land... and mythical kingfishers.
MUST-WATCH: Ellie Goulding performing 'Only You' live below...