Ellie Goulding has to be the most chameleonic performer working in music today. Her million-selling debut album from 2010, Lights, portrayed her as an electro-diva in the then popular vein of Little Boots and La Roux, singing over programmed beats. Then a few months later, performing live in Islington's Union Chapel, she had become a folkie damsel with string accompaniment. Now, Ellie's shifted shape yet again, her layered vocals riding busily cycling synths and massive drum barrages in some sort of transatlantic musical Esperanto yoking together techno, R&B and pomp-rock.
Goulding acts as if she's constantly in flight from that kind of defining strategy, forever in fear of ossifying. Though it could be something much simpler than that: it's impossible not to notice the echoes of Adele creeping into several songs, in the pulsing piano and vocal tremor of "My Blood" and "Only You", and in the constant picking at the scabs of emotional turmoil throughout Halcyon.
In the press release, she explains how she felt blocked until the break up of a relationship triggered an outpouring of songs. But compared to the songs on Lights, these seem nebulous affairs, their sentiments hiding behind insistent keyboard riffs and drum tattoos and complex layered vocal arrangements that seem to be trying to cover up for the lack of compulsion in their melodies. The opener "Don't Say a Word" is typical, the wordless, echoey vocal cooings of its intro giving way to a muscular drum groove: it never establishes itself as a song, only as a production. The formula is repeated elsewhere, with looped and layered vocal flourishes adding decorative touches where cleaner melodic lines might serve the songs better.
Which is not to say there's no value in Halcyon. Goulding's capable of crafting telling lines, – I liked the conceit "Please don't close your eyes, I don't know where to look without them" – while the tempering of the methodical portents of piano and sepulchral organ with twinkling showers of harp works well in tracks like "Figure 8", "Atlantis" and "Hanging On". It's a well-crafted, stylish piece of work. But it's hard to love songs that try to hide.
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