In a year of great pop records--especially EDM records--Ellie Goulding's Halcyon stood out to me for two reasons. It is perhaps this year's most unified record in both theme and production, but also each of its tracks are dazzling individual works. While this is only Goulding's second effort, it shows great maturity and artistic growth. Her voice has never sounded better, and her instincts are sharper than ever.
Halcyon is a meticulously planned LP. Though its themes are classic--lost love, depression, desire--and it fits firmly within the break-up album wheelhouse, Goulding makes the topic her own through strong aesthetic choices. The unifying production element and metaphor here is water, particularly the ocean. We get hints of this on the opening track, "Don't Say Word," which begins with a chilling water effect before the beat rushes in after the singer's voice. This motif works throughout the project, like the image of the river on the stellar, "Anything Could Happen," and, of course, the on-the-nose metaphors in the closing tracks, "Atlantis" and "Dead in the Water." Even the tracks that do not so blatantly exploit this image sound like they are performed by the ocean, as the singer and her producers use echoing vocals and expansive drums to evoke caves and crashing waves. Often, these effects are thrilling in combination.
Within these greater unifying elements, the individual tracks are revelations in their own rights. "Figure 8"breaks open at the chorus to such a large and dark beat it's chill-inducing, and "Anything Could Happen" features such a rich and coarse vocal from Goulding that you can't help but get swept up into her desperation and hope. The softer moments, like the piano-ballad, "I Know You Care," features solid song-writing and holds its own as a meditation on loneliness, as the singer laments, "I used to run down the stairs / To the door when I thought you were there." Its heartbreaking, and shows that Goulding can stand outside production flares and still move her listener.
Even the bonus tracks bolster the album. "I Need Your Love," a Calvin Harris dance confection, shows that Goulding can work in more straight-up Top 40 song, and its blipping beat and lustful lyrics give a breath of playfulness to an otherwise dark record. Goulding's "Lights" is also interesting in that it contrasts her new music starkly and shows how much ground she has made over the past couple years. "Lights" is a pop gem, but the tracks on Halcyon are more adventurous, textured, and challenging.
It is invigorating to see a pop star continuing to grow and mature. Halcyon shows an artist on the rise, and, I hope, proves Goulding to have staying power. She is already realizing her tremendous potential, and yet still has so much, it seems, to show her listeners.