When a style becomes popular across all genres it becomes a challenge to stay refreshing and new. The bright, instantly satisfying sound of synth in particular has exploded in the past decade, as the availability of music technology has brought it to seemingly every corner of the music scene, from the dubstep dungeon of Skrillex to the abrasive hip-hop of Kanye’s latest, and even to the soft, low-fi sound of indie pop.
The sound is practically inescapable in pop music, which makes the decision all the more critical how an artist chooses their arrangements if they want to keep an interesting edge. Ellie Goulding, UK crossover artist known for her smash hits “Lights” and “Anything Can Happen”, confronts this dilemma with the re-release of her second album.
In deciding between invention and emulation, Goulding seems to have chosen the latter. “Halcyon Days” begins with “Burn”, a Cascada-inspired dance anthem anchored with repetitive invitations to “play it loud” and “let it burn, burn burn.” The rest of the album continues this way, nice on-the-surface energy, big instrumental build-ups that pay off with little in the surprise department. Most likely you’ll feel you’ve heard this album before.
Guest appearances by Madeon, DJ Fresh and Tinie Tempah bring a little variation to the table. “Midas Touch” feels stronger with Burns pitching in on vocals, and “Goodness Gracious” benefits from the coproduction of Fun, but the next track, “How Long Will I Love You”, falls to a toothless chorus, as do most of the new tracks on “Halcyon Days.”
In reaching for a broad, big sound to fill arenas, Goulding dumbs down the complexity and direction of her songs. Boring lyrics and predictable structures bring her sound into the realm of chart-friendly dance blandness, something agreeable enough for an idle moment but hard to go back to for multiple listens.
There are moments where “Halcyon Days” almost works, but most of these are on the already-released material of the originally-titled “Halcyon.” “My Blood” offers a rare strong chorus, complete with swooning back vocals and a few pittering piano keys in just the right amount. “Anything Can Happen” is focused and direct with the right kind of simplicity. Followed by “Only You”, with beautiful Passion Pit-like back-ups on the chorus, these three tracks form the highlight of the album.
This momentum isn’t sustained, however, and on the drawn-out “Explosions” and aptly titled “Dead in the Water” Goulding is at her most uninspiring.
Goulding has potential to make powerful, driven music if she commits to the electronic side of her sound (instead of the compromise between genres it is now). Or taking a page from Florence + The Machine, were she to find more interesting arrangements to contrast with her distinctive voice, she could breakthrough the sameness of radio pop and make something both accessible and awesome.
But for now, “Halcyon Days” more often than not feels hollow. As a temporary energizer, brief relief from a long day of boredom, Goulding satisfies, but ultimately it’s empty calories. We’ll have to wait for her next album for the power and ecstasy of “Lights” to return. Fortunately in today’s crowded and diverse music scene, there’s plenty of innovative substitutes to choose from.