"This is quite cool. But it's a bit late!" So said British singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding in The New York Times earlier this month, after being told that her single "Lights" had become a hit in the States. It's taken two years-- years during which Goulding has been constantly, fervently touted as the next big UK breakout-- for the London pop star to catch a break on these shores. "Lights", a bonus track from the debut album of the same name, follows a string of five not-quite-crossovers.
It's increasingly common for bonus tracks to become sleeper hits, thereby resuscitating albums and digging artists out of their midchart quagmires. (Nicki Minaj's crossover was largely the doing of bonus track "Super Bass" from 2010's Pink Friday.) "Lights", co-written by Biff Stannard, who penned many a hit for the Spice Girls, was also issued as a single. That release came with the featherweight original, a wobbly Bassnectar remix, and a Fernando Garibay dance mix that sounded a lot like his last big project, Lady Gaga's Born This Way. All styles sounded perfectly plausible, and all received airplay. Radio-ready dance-pop? She'd be neither the first nor last to make that pivot. Dubstep? She likes it enough to hang with Skrillex, as anything written about Goulding in 2012 inevitably mentions. Polite folktronica? It worked for Beth Orton. Her po-faced cover of Elton John's "Your Song"? It worked for, um, Birdy. Rebloggable covers of Active Child and the Weeknd? Why the hell not?
The charitable interpretation of this is that Goulding's got a lot of ideas to play with. The cynical interpretation is that she's being opportunist, flinging herself into five potential genres in the hopes that one will take root. This isn't to say Ellie Goulding's music is anonymous. She has an instantly identifiable voice that can flip from soprano trills to scrappy yarls within a single verse, and she never sounds, like some of her peers, over-anxious to pass a BRIT School vocal jury. Sometimes she leaves her voice more or less alone, but more often she tweaks it, chops it up into snippets, loops it.
And so we've arrived at a place where Ellie Goulding has scored a Stateside hit, performed at Prince William's wedding reception and Barack Obama's Christmas-tree lighting ceremony, and has now dropped this perfectly timed album, Halcyon. She's calling Halcyon a breakup album in interviews, but the guy whose dumping really matters is Starsmith, who produced most of Lights. Apart from a few bonus tracks, he appears here just once, on the aptly titled "Dead in the Water". His best substitute here is Jim Eliot of Kish Mauve; he's no Stannard, but he's gone the rounds: stately dance for Kylie Minogue, angstful electro for Ladyhawke, assembly-line hits for "Pop Idol" winners.
"Anything Could Happen" is essentially a Passion Pit song without the emotional torment, from the stadium balcony-high synths down to the earnestness. ("After the war, we said we'd fight together/ I guess we thought that's just what humans do.") The claps and stomps and pleading of "My Blood" and "Only You" are clearly trying to emulate fellow Brit Adele, but if that experiment doesn't work, Goulding's got plenty of others. "Figure 8" and "Hanging On" are the pop-step songs, the ones that sound like they come from the same musical universe as Chase and Status. If those are too niche, a bonus track and likely single brings in Calvin Harris, sounding exactly like he always does.
These songs work better than the more traditional folk-leaning tracks, at least. Those underpinnings always existed beneath the club lights in Goulding's music, but mostly, her ballads are somnolent and give too much rein to her drippier lyrical impulses: "I feel a lump in my throat, and this is far from joy," for example, or rhyming "houses" and "rouses" on the title track. She's better off when her voice and sonics take the forefront: the choral swells throughout the otherwise straightforward "Explosions", the way "Don't Say a Word" churns up drama around mostly repeated lyrics, or the whistle-register baubles strewn throughout "Atlantis". Goulding can certainly inhabit a soundscape. Her next step is to inhabit just one.Let us know what you think of Ellie's song!