When Ellie Goulding released her debut album Lights in early 2010 she did so on the back of considerable hype, and it was no surprise to see the commercial success she was enjoying across Europe. Goulding's arrival had been cleverly moved from the blog-friendly world of working with Starsmith and early releases with Neon Gold to a home with Universal and on radio playlists that ate up her clever mix of nu-folk touches and electro-pop ideas. She shone on singles like Starry Eyed but for me her debut crossed into twee territory too often, such as the schmaltzy The Writer which had little of the sparse, intricate feel that characterised her best work.
Following the success of the album, a reissue entitled Bright Lights arrived alongside her slow-burning take on Elton John's Your Song. It soundtracked a John Lewis ad, became an X-Factor staple and likely sold her a bucketload of albums. So far, so typical British pop success story. Then something funny happened. A track from that reissue, Lights (previously only an iTunes bonus track) was released as a single in mid-2011, appearing on the US chart in August before reappearing January of this year. It began a slow and steady climb on airplay and download charts before finally reaching no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, having clocked up 3 million downloads.
Suddenly, without really having to try, Goulding had a huge hit in the US and added a huge territory into her arsenal. While Lights was a few years old at this point, Goulding already had new material ready to go after plenty of press coverage. She famously performed Your Song at William and Kate's wedding, dated high profile Radio 1 DJ Greg James before famously shacking up with electronic music superstar Skrillex. Goulding was already a big star but the last year has slowly shifted around her to give her second album Halcyon a sense of expectation even she couldn't have predicted.
The beauty of this second album then, is how Goulding not only delivers an album of songs that could garner many hits but that she amps up all the things that made her first album so strong.
The majority of the production comes from Jim Eliot of electro-pop group Kish Mauve who famously worked on 2 Hearts for Kylie (And co-wrote All The Lovers) and on the sophisticated downbeat disco-pop of Will Young's Echoes album from last year (including the stunning single Jealousy). That well balanced mix of electronic music flourishes allowing more pared down melodies to surface informs the strongest moments on Halcyon.
Opening track Don't Say A Word is all ghoulish humming, eerie chords and ambient vocals but it works as setting out the stall for the slightly darker tone of proceedings this time, the faint, gloomy bass not a million miles from something The Weeknd would do (apt given that Goulding covered one of his tunes earlier this year).
From there it's a back and forth between shades of growling electro-pop and more delicate moments. Some of these songs are already out there for fans to take in and give a decent sense of the album. Anything Could Happen, the sprightly lead single, is a real winner, a big uplifting chorus and tweaked vocal samples rippling along nicely. Explosions and I Know You Care are more traditional, winsome folk-lite pop ballads that make good movie soundtrack tunes (I Know You Care being used for the soundtrack of the Dakota Fanning weepie Now Is Good) but feel a little flat. Especially when an album track like Joy mines a similar territory but adds in sweeping choral vocals and a little more imagination to lift an already haunting tune or the delicate intensity of her Active Child cover Hanging On that debuted a couple of months ago.
However, the real gems come when Goulding lets loose, conjuring her own expansive, almost-gothic pop vision. My Blood is a tumbling piano driven number that builds with a Coldplay-esque sweep that Goulding pulls off with aplomb. Figure 8 scatters jumped-up dubstep production all over the place and works magnificently, one of the standouts, while Only You is jittery and infectious gloom-pop. There's an enjoyable bonus track tacked on too, I Need Your Love a Calvin Harris production featuring Goulding's vocals (it'll appear on his forthcoming album 18 Months) that is poles apart from the rest of the material but works on it's own merits.
Halcyon may drift into slightly twee territory at times but for the most part this is an impressive and engaging gaggle of electro-folk-pop building on the promise of her Starsmith days and Neon Gold buzz and maturing an already impressive sound. With an ever-growing audience and such a polished second wave of material there's little to stop this album being one of the biggest of the next 12 months.
Halcyon is released Friday in Ireland, Monday the 8th of October in the UK and the day after in the US. The single Anything Could Happen is out now.