I’ve learned the hard way that the best way to discover music is to not go looking for it. While watching a football game extremely hung over last weekend, I heard Ellie Goulding’s song “Anything Could Happen” playing during one of the nine million interludes between car commercials and actual football. I knew I had heard the song before — it was featured in the trailer for season two of Girls — and though I have paid little attention to contemporary music in the past year, I had an inkling the artist was Ellie Goulding. Who could mistake that airy, impossibly high falsetto, that ridiculous flexibility that sounds like some kind of human autotuner, even in a live setting, accompanied only by a guitar?
I wondered what was going on with Ellie Goulding, whether she was succeeding, since in my old age — I began my writing career as a music critic — I am more interested in living vicariously through musicians’ careers than in judging the merits of their work. I knew from my days as a music critic and blogger that Ellie Goulding had been struggling to break through on an international scale for a few years, and I’ve long wondered why. Is she not perfect-looking enough? Is her voice not powerful enough? It’s possible that her music, which has always leaned heavily toward electronica, needed people like Robyn, Skrillex and Grimes to pave the way for her galactic pop. It turns out that while I was busy spending 2012 listening to Grimes and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan bootlegs, Ellie Goulding put out her second album, Halcyon, and it is spectacular. But maybe you already know this.
Halcyon is a breakup album for the ages. Goulding is an incredibly sharp lyricist: wise, observant and evocative beyond her 26 years, but then lyrical precocity means nothing with people like 22-year-old Laura Marling in the world. Goulding and Marling have a lot in common aside from their British roots: they are both happy to thrash about in excruciating pain over love lost, love unrequited, love in limbo. They are studious about love, immersing themselves in it. It’s hard not to think that Halcyon and 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know, Laura Marling’s third studio album, are each about one subject, one frustrating, all-consuming muse. Marling’s album centers on the titular “creature,” a metaphorical beast that is provoked by, or perhaps just is, a certain old flame (maybe it’s Marcus Mumford, maybe it isn’t). Marling sings alternately playfully, angrily and bravely about this beast. What exactly is this beast’s role? What’s to be done about him? She spends ten songs exploring the question.
Ellie Goulding’s “Only You” is musically one of the less interesting songs on Halcyon, but its lyrics are, as always with this album, powerful. She talks about a beast of her own:
Only you can be the aching in my heart
My enemy, the only animal I couldn’t fight
You hold me in the dark when storms arrive, only you
It’s telling that this person is described as an “animal.” He is protective, but he is also threatening, predatory. The other songs on the album can’t help but convince us that this “animal” motivated their lyrical content too. At least, all of the songs on the non-deluxe version of Halcyon are written in the second person, addressed to a “you.” This makes the album more appealing and relatable. There are complex ideas at work, but with that “you” cutting through the metaphors, we are not lost the way we are lost on A Creature I Don’t Know, which is often impenetrably esoteric and personal.
The centerpiece of Halcyon is “Anything Could Happen,” Goulding’s biggest single to date. It is a deceptively upbeat song about an accident, a tragedy, or at least a separation of some kind (the video for the song, above, features a car accident). Goulding has said that the song is actually supposed to be positive, that its message is about acting on feelings because “anything could happen,” good or bad. (My translation of that is that someone might die without knowing how you feel about them and then you’ll regret it forever, but her message might not be quite that dark). The lyrics of “Anything Could Happen” are odd, and don’t make a lot of sense to the casual dancing, football-watching or exercising listener. Goulding talks about some kind of “wreck of ’86” (which is the year she was born), and we’re reminded that projecting our own feelings or speculation onto someone else’s songs is a necessarily fraught process. But pretty much everywhere else on the album, Goulding makes it easy for us to see ourselves in her songs, to acutely feel what she has gone through, to feel old memories of heartbreak bubbling back up to the surface. As for “Anything Could Happen,” it’s pure joy, and one of the best songs to run to that I’ve heard.
What is the process that Goulding went through with these songs? What’s her thesis statement? I think she answers that question on the song “Figure 8,” whose chorus goes like this:
I chased your love around a figure 8
I need you more than I can take
You promised forever and a day
And then you take it all away
“I chased your love around a figure 8.” Crap, this is a powerful metaphor. The song is angry and insistent, thanks to a dubstep beat that is not all that different from the one used on Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” (but it makes a hell of a lot more sense in an Ellie Goulding song). The whole album seems to be about chasing this love in a never-ending figure eight, which of course represents going nowhere, but also symbolizes infinity, eternity — the singer’s unwillingness to move on, to break the cycle, her hope being that at some point her devotion will pay off. She leaves a bit of room to be resolute (“Joy”) but most of the songs on Halcyon involve fighting her best judgment, tossing out reason in favor of rumination.
Arguably the best song on Halcyon, and one of my favorite pop songs in a long time, is “My Blood,” in which Goulding flirts with rationality — “God knows I’m not dying,” the chorus begins, as she tries to bring herself back down to Earth, to make light of the situation. But mostly she is still stuck, thinking: “I’m caught in the crossfire of my own thoughts” — another brilliant lyric.
Elsewhere, Goulding excels at trying to fight this relationship, or whatever it is, with knowledge, with the shared history she has with this person. On “Explosions,” she sings: “As the flood moves in / and your body starts to sink / I was the last thing on your mind / I know you better than you think.” She holds a kind of power here, putting him exactly where she wants him by creating an allegory of the situation, but there is also desperation, as if “I know you” is the last tool in her arsenal. The entirety of “I Know You Care” is also about this concept. It’s one of the quieter songs on the album, and it’s clear and insistent by being quiet. “I know you care,” she sings, “I know it’s always been there / but there is trouble ahead, I can feel it / you are just saving yourself / when you hide it.” Goulding, for her part, is not interested in “saving” herself. She has laid everything bare.
As with most major pop releases or aspiring major pop releases, Halcyon features several producers, including Billboard (Ke$ha, Britney Spears), Jim Eliot (Kylie Minogue), Justin Parker (Rihanna, Lana del Rey) and Starsmith (Cheryl Cole). If you’re a music critic looking to peg Ellie Goulding as a particular kind of artist, this is confusing. But if you’re just a person looking to enjoy music and perhaps relate to its lyrics, Halcyon is breathtaking, and it matters fuck-all that Goulding dips into electronica, folktronica, dubstep, and the kind of dreamy, sophisticated pop made by Bat for Lashes and, to some degree, Florence and the Machine. In fact, reading Pitchfork’s review of Halcyon threatened to ruin the experience of this album for me. I should have known better: there is not a drop of subjectivity in most high-profile music reviews, because the chief concerns of the critic are how accomplished something is and how it fits into the current scheme of musical things.
Never mind how it emotionally feels to listen to it, or how pleasing it sounds to the ear, or how the skill of this songwriter trumps the occasional overreaches of the men — no surprises here, it is all men — at the controls. Fortunately, in this age, album reviews (not to be confused with music writing in general) matter less and less. We now have a better chance of hearing music before we read a critic’s review of it, because there are so many more ways to hear music, so many places and ways to run into it. I keep on obsessively listening to Halcyon, drowning out the nitpicky chatter of the critics. Music is armor that can be used to ward off scrutiny of all kinds, including that of the music itself.