Halcyon: a time past when life was happy and peaceful. It’s a bittersweet theme that listeners of Ellie Goulding’s sophomore venture will become very familiar with over the course of the album’s 12 songs. Where 2010’s Lights was pure pop bliss, Halcyon is a darker, more intimate journey. It’s a break-up album. The songs are slower, the tempo is lower, and the hurt runs deep.
Halcyon is an album full of emotional highs and lows. It pulls you in slowly with “Don’t Say a Word,” a softer track lined with Goulding’s ethereal cries. It’s repetitive, almost to a fault, but indicates the tonal change in Goulding’s style. She charges with confidence into “My Blood,” which strongly echoes the soulful vocals of Adele. It’s an early track, but one of the album’s best. “God knows it’s the only way to feel now, with all the blood I lost with you,” Goulding repeats, and it’s a sentiment that anyone familiar with heartbreak can instantly understand.
Goulding takes the time to break free of emotional baggage and explore happier times as well. “Anything Could Happen” reflects on better days. Goulding has a lovely voice, but occasionally her soprano-strung vocals hit a note that rubs the eardrums the wrong way. In this case, the high-pitched, squeaky “ee ee”s that run rampant in this track are too much. Thankfully, not all upbeat tracks take this turn. “Joy,” where Goulding realizes that life goes on after loved ones leave, is more traditional in its approach. It’s not one of the album’s stronger tracks, but it lends a much-needed note of hope to an often somber album.
“Dead in the Water” draws Halcyon to its slow close, but the real star here is its predecessor, “Atlantis.” By far the best track on the album, it combines Goulding’s talent for gorgeous, high vocals with heart-tugging vocals. It’s a quintessential break-up song, balancing moving on (“I’ll forget you, love”) with the helplessness of love and love lost (“Where’d you go?”). Beautiful in its execution and catching in its repetition, “Atlantis” is the crowning jewel of Halcyon.
Halcyon is more than Ellie Goulding’s next album: it’s a step away from the perky, poppy reputation she established with her debut and a leap into more mature territory. It’s a deeper, more satisfying experience, with emotional substance that Lights so sorely lacked. There’s a special kind of pleasure you can take away from pain, and Halcyon hurts in all the right ways.