Ellie Goulding is one of those artists that sort of defies labeling. She fits loosely into pop, but her songs often lack a strong pop structure; she has a lot of electro elements in her sound, but when she opens her mouth to sing, that whisper-warbly voice of hers simply oozes Celtic folk. Not as mainstream as Madonna or Gaga, but not quite as experimental as Bjork or Imogen Heap. Know what I mean?
Of course you don’t. That’s just the point.
Most of us in the U.S. thought we got to know Goulding by hearing her debut album Lights (and the hit single title track), but if you thought her new album Halcyon was going to be more of that EDM/club type of thing, think again. Ellie Goulding has taken a bit of a left turn, surprising us with a sophomore effort that combines the same elements of electronic and folk, but takes them in a whole different direction, far more toward folktronic than EDM.
Perhaps the best way to describe the difference between the first album and the second is that while Lights played like an electro-pop album with Goulding almost accompanying it with her voice, in Halcyon, it’s pretty much all about the voice, and the electro elements become the accompaniment. You’ll find a few danceable moments here, but producer Jim Eliot has made certain that Goulding’s voice dominates the mix in a way that makes the listener want to take a moment just to stop and listen. Not only does her high-timbre warble take center stage in just about all the tracks, but it also forms part of the accompaniment, as well. “Only You,” for example, is built upon an electronically manipulated sample of Goulding humming, while “Anything Could Happen” includes a variety of vocal samples behind the melody, including what sounds almost like an electronic choir. And then, there are the moments when her voice needs almost no backdrop, as in the powerful “I Know You Care”, which is mostly Goulding singing over solid, simple piano chords with the occasional “ah” in the background.
So does this directional shift work? Absolutely. Halcyon is well-crafted and well-produced, with compelling songs and interesting sounds, both engaging and artistic in its approach. It’s just not necessarily a record for the dance floor (although I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if some DJs started remixing this stuff for it—Ahadadream has already done so with “Hanging On,” for example).
There are some critics who have taken a negative tone toward Ellie Goulding’s apparent refusal to be pigeonholed, accusing the artist of not really knowing who she is, or of trying to pander to too many niches at once. But in this case, I disagree. Ellie Goulding doesn’t package neatly into any particular genre or sub-genre, but that also means Goulding won’t be easily lost in a field of sound-alikes. I think Halcyon aptly demonstrates her diversity and originality as an artist, and by defying the genre labels a bit, she has a lot more potential to make a lasting name for herself as she continues to grow.