British singer Ellie Goulding defies quick categorization. Her first hit in the U.S., "Lights," bears witness to the influence of the ever-burgeoning electronic dance music scene. But pop sensibilities shine through as well. And that, no doubt, is the reason the song spent more than a year in the Hot 100, peaking at No. 2.
Now, though, listening to her EDM-infused sophomore effort, Halcyon, it becomes equally apparent that Goulding's elfin, ethereal style has as much in common with Björk, Dido or Florence Welch as it does Carly Rae Jepsen or Katy Perry (with whom Goulding recently toured). The singer told papermag.com, "People try to put me into different categories, but maybe I'm not in one."
Chalk that up to Goulding's voice, an instrument that mysteriously embodies fierce and fragile all at once. It's definitely not the kind of female voice we're used to hearing on the radio. Instead, it's a slight, plaintive wisp of a thing—especially when she modulates into her specter-like falsetto. The overall effect is one of naked vulnerability, a sensation so strong at times you want to look away out of modesty as Halcyon unceasingly unpacks Goulding's feelings of loss and abandonment.
On "My Blood," Goulding grabs onto the fact that a breakup isn't going to kill her and healing is possible: "And God knows I'm not dying/But I breathe now/And God knows it's the only way to heal now." A line on "Joy"—an emotion she definitely isn't feeling while singing it—admits that perhaps she's looking for that emotion in the wrong places: "I've figured out that joy is not in your arms."
The aching "I Know You Care" is reportedly a song in which Goulding tries to come to terms with her father having abandoned her family when she was 5, a father she hasn't seen since. "Clinging to me/Like the last breath you would breathe/You were like home to me," she begins. "I used to run down the stairs/To the door when I thought you were there." But despite his abandonment, she strives to give him the benefit of the doubt ("I know you care") and stoke the flame of hope that perhaps there might yet be reconciliation ("But I still hope/'Cause this is how things ought to have been/And I know the worst of us wasn't all that it seemed").
"Explosions" wishes a former flame well ("I pray that you will find peace of mind/And I'll find you another time"). That song also features Ellie coming to grips with fear as she reassures herself (and us) that, "It's OK to be afraid."
Much more often than not, Goulding seems submerged in the bewildering, disorienting emotions that accompany her losses. On "Explosions," for instance, we hear, "You left my soul bleeding in the dark/ … And I've lost faith in everything." "My Blood" metaphorically compares a breakup to bleeding on a rocky ocean shore: "I'm caught in the crossfire/Of my own thoughts/The color of my blood/Is all I see on the rocks/As you sail from me/ … My blood is all I see as you steal my soul from me." It's a loss, she insists, that she'll feel forever: "Alarms will ring for eternity/ … My bones will bleach, my flesh will flee."
"Only You" longs for fulfillment in a relationship that instead leaves the singer feeling empty: "Only you can see the emptiness I feel when you're with me." Meanwhile, "Halcyon" laments, "I know you're a fighter/But you never fought for me/When I was a shelter/And you're not heading home to me/ … I take your hand for you to let it go/Let it go/Let it go." And on "Joy," she sings, "I know I'll always ache with an empty heart/ … I think of dying all the time/ … Fear is my favorite ride." "Atlantis" observes grimly, "I'm dead in the water/Still looking for you/I'm dead in the water/Can't see you/Can't see you."
"Hanging On" implies that a failing relationship still contains an unhealthy element of physical intimacy ("Touch me and then turn away"). "Don't Say a Word" could be interpreted as a desperate attempt to heal a relationship not with talking, but with sex: "I'm more alive, I've ever been/So now I give you all my sins/I've chosen you, I've chosen you/But don't say a word." Elsewhere on the song, she begs, "Won't you come, won't you come/Won't you come, just don't say a word."
"Anything Could Happen" relates this sensual memory: "Stripped to the waist/We fall into the river/Cover your eyes/So you don't know the secret/I've been trying to hide."
The bio on Ellie Goulding's website includes this summary of Halcyon's emotional subject matter: "Capturing a period of profound change and transition in Ellie's life, Halcyon is, despite the mournful nature of much of its inspiration, ultimately a redemptive album."
I think that assessment is half right. There are isolated moments in which it seems Goulding might be gaining redemptive perspective on the soul-wrenching losses she sings about in nearly every song. More often, though, mournful feels like a more accurate descriptor.
Goulding's undeniably haunting voice narrates her grief-filled journey, one in which she struggles to find any bearings at all to help her traverse that dark path safely and successfully. "You show me what it feels like to be lost," she confesses to a departed lover on the title track.
I'd argue that much if not most of this album does exactly the same for listeners wading through the deceptively placid waters of Halcyon.