Album Review: “Halcyon Days” by Ellie Goulding

Halcyon Days” is Ellie Goulding’s second album that was released in August of 2013. Several years later, this record still stands out, and is sure to be impactful throughout time, for those who are familiar with her work. For me, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

The genre is most closely associated with EDM, but it has such a unique sound that it would be too limiting to classify it as such. There is a lot of stillness and ambience, as well as a folksy an indie element there. Tracks vary from acoustic to dubstep and everything in between. Overall, its sound is its own thing.

The “halcyon” is a magical bird from ancient Greek mythology, large and colorful, believed to have the ability to calm the heaviest of storms. Through this myth birthed the dictionary term “halcyon” — a peaceful and tranquil time in history. The phrase “halcyon days” refers to a period of time where everything is simple, serene, and happy.

From the title, you might expect this album to be lighthearted and boppy, but it is so much more than that. There’s peace, there’s joy, there’s acceptance… while there’s also sorrow, sadness, and anger. This music will travel you through the depths, both the light and the darkness.

Ellie Goulding wrote these songs while in the midst of a painful breakup. For that reason, this record can easily be classified as a “breakup album,” but can also be relatable for any type of grief. It takes you through all the stages of grief, not necessarily in order, which is ultimately what the grieving process truly is. Some days you’re in denial, some days you’re bargaining, other days you’re sad or angry, and then you find acceptance — which doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t find yourself back in the previous stages again.


Part I

1. Don’t Say A Word

“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”

What a lovely and peaceful beginning… still, quiet, mainly a-Capella… progressively becoming louder and heavier with suspense… shortly back to quietness… and then again more heaviness.

2. My Blood

And God knows, I’m not dying but I bleed now
And God knows, it’s the only way to heal now
With all the blood I lost with you
It drowns the love I thought I knew”

The sound of this song is like marching through battle after being beaten and bruised, but you are so close to the end. The lyrics are about seeing and feeling your pain in order to let go and release it. You have to bleed it out.

3. Anything Could Happen

Baby, I’ll give you everything you need
I’ll give you everything you need, oh
I’ll give you everything you need
But I don’t think I need you”

This song is full of so much hope. It is the beautiful blank slate after hitting rock bottom and the only way from here is up. It’s catchy and uplifting, but in a soothing way.

4. Only You

Only you can see the emptiness I feel
When you’re with me
When everything you say I’m on my knees
Baby I’m on my knees”

The lyrics are simple and minimal but there is so much being said here without actually saying it. One person can have so much power over you, they can see things that no one else can see in you. This can feel good in some ways, but ultimately leaves you feeling weak and overtaken. And no one else around you, from the outside, can see how much destruction is happening to you.

5. Halcyon

When it’s just us
You show me what it feels like to be lonely
You show me what it feels like to be lost
I take your hand for you to let it go
Let it go, let it go, let it go”

This is when things get so dark and heavy and you’re wishing for “halcyon days.” So you look forward into the future, hoping for happier and more peaceful times.

6. Figure 8

So lovers hold on to everything
And lovers hold on to anything
So lovers hold on to everything
And lovers hold on to anything”

Strong dubstep sound, a great headbanger. This is when the anger really comes out. The “figure 8” is an endless cycle of going back and forth, of letting go and holding on, of giving someone all your love and then taking it all back. It drives you mad. The only way to escape is to let go, but that’s not what lovers do.

7. Joy

I’ve figured out that joy is not in your arms
I know I’ll always ache with an empty heart
I think it’s time to run ‘cos I’m seeing stars
I’m seeing stars, watch me fall apart”

Completely straying from electronic, this is more piano and symphony based. There is so much peace and acceptance in this song, even though it’s also coupled with complete breakdown and despair. Peace is not such a “happy” thing we make it out to be. When we face reality checks, and realize what we need to do in order to end the madness, it can be totally devastating. Peace can be such a sad thing, but it brings so much freedom, which is a type of joy that you will never experience while remaining to live in an illusion.

8. Hanging On

Touch me and then turn away
And put your hands into the flame
Tell me if you feel this pain
‘Cause I don’t want to be a ball and chain

The song starts off minimal and slow, but there is a sense of rising tension, which eventually breaks out into more head-banging dubstep. As much as you want to let go on the surface, it’s extremely difficult to force yourself to.

9. Explosions

Explosions on the day you wake up
Needing somebody and you’ve learned
It’s okay to be afraid
But it will never be the same
It will never be the same”

A very haunting and chilling song. Similar to the previous track “Joy,” the lyrics represent finding peace and acceptance, as upsetting as it may be. The tracks have similar messages, but this one differs in the way that with “Joy” you let yourself become teary-eyed, but with “Explosions” you let it all out and completely feel your pain. It’s not about escaping fear, because life is full of unknowns — especially when you’ve recently lost someone, there’s so many confusing changes ahead. But by accepting this, you grow stronger, and you keep pushing forward.

10. I Know You Care

And know it wasn’t always wrong
But I’ve never known a
Winter so cold
Now I don’t warm my hands
In your coat
But I still hope”

Strong indie vibes here, with the whole song being entirely piano along with a chorus singing in the background. It’s very soft and sweet. There’s no bitterness here, just melancholiness and a hint of gratefulness.

11. Atlantis

I’ll forget you not
I’ll wait for you, maybe”

This is an electronic symphony. Like the myth of Atlantis, wondering where a person and place has gone, vanished with no evidence.

12. Dead In The Water

“I’m there in the water
Still looking for you
I’m there in the water
Can’t you see?
Can’t you see?”

Tranquil, echoey, and lonely. It’s the feeling of swimming in the middle of the sea, surrounded by nothing but water. You’re struggling to keep afloat, treading in place, but there’s no ship or land to get to. So eventually you give up and find yourself dead in the water, still and lifeless. Your body ceases, but your soul is flying above, an endless search to find home.


This is the original ending of Halcyon‘s first release from 2012. It’s a story that begins and ends with peace, in between is where the struggle is. The start of the record brings feelings of curiosity and hope for the future, telling yourself why you need to let go. By the end, reality hits and shows you that the idea of letting go is far more romanticized than the actual process. The reason why letting go is so difficult, is because you never genuinely let go — the mind and body become exhausted, but the soul is always hoping, wishing, waiting. As you release a person from your past, and all the pain and hurt, you never stop searching for that love you once experienced. And you will find that love again — in another person, or in another place, or perhaps deep within yourself — so let go of whatever was holding you back, but let your soul continue to hold onto love.


Part II

13. I Need Your Love (ft. Calvin Harris)

“I need to be free with you tonight.”

Produced by Calvin Harris, he also appears in the music video. And even though they (apparently) never dated in real life, they make a super cute couple. This song expresses the yearning and urge to be in love. It’s got that trademark Calvin Harris beat.

14. Ritual

There’s a raging fire and it burns so near
But I’m ready now, but I’m ready now

This is possibly my favorite song on the album. What is this “ritual” she is referring to? Well, I think it could be anything from taking drugs to falling in love (kinda the same thing?) You’re shedding your ego and stepping into a higher dimension. It totally has a tribal sound to it.

15. In My City

Shoulders ache for wanted wings
My city shakes, the fear in me

Not my favorite, but very uplifting and catchy.

16. Without Your Love

“Without your love, I’m gettin’ somewhere.”

Another song about hope and strength. The lyrics are minimal but the melody is strong!

17. Hanging On (ft. Tinie Tempah)

You’ve got a noose around my neck, but I’m still hanging on
We’ve nearly reached the finish line, up in our marathon
I spat a verse, she sang a song
She broke my heart, I took some Gaviscon

This is a repeat, but now including featured rap from Tinie Tempah, which makes the sing sound way more amazing. He doesn’t appear until the very end, but he really gives it new life.

18. Lights

You show the lights that stop me turn to stone.”

“Lights” is a dazzling song that came from Ellie Goulding’s first album, her first single that was overplayed on all the radio stations for a very good reason. This sparkly song induces colorful visuals like a hallucinogen. It is the transcendence of illusions and fear.

19. Burn

They gonna see us from outer space
Light it up, like we’re the stars of the human race.

One of my favorite songs, about feeling free and living in the moment. There’s so much excitement going on.

20. Goodness Gracious

I wanna hold you close, I just never wanna hold you tight

If “neon” was a song, then this would be it. I can’t help put think of neon colors when I hear this. The lyrics are about always coming back to someone, but in a very happy and positive tone. It’s very fun, uplifting, kind of silly. However, there’s a subtle darkness to it — selfishly stringing someone along and only keeping them in your life halfway.

21. You My Everything

You’re sensible, it doesn’t make sense

The sound is really trippy. This song represents stubbornly trying really hard for someone who’s not reciprocating.

22. Hearts Without Chains

And if time was still
We’d have no fear or scars to heal
In our hearts without chains
In our hearts without chains”

This is mainly piano with subtle electronica. “Hears without chains” is a fascinating concept. It’s the imagining of life without any time, which would take away the existence of fear or pain. With the passing of time comes the inevitable consequence of growth, and growing is a painful process, uncomfortably moving past your comfort zone into a sense of the unknown. Yet growth is the only way we become greater and stronger. This makes me think of clinging to a dead relationship for the sake of comfort and stability, rather than being brave enough to move on.

23. Stay Awake

“Take my fate in your hands
We’ve got a lot that hasn’t even began
Something is calling us, we’re breaking free
I’m curious, I need to see”

High energy here, which isn’t surprising for a song titled “Stay Awake.” There is so much anxiety and excitement. It’s the opposite of depression, when you’re both mentally and physically exhausted and want to give up. Instead, you feel like fighting, like something new is happening and you don’t want to miss it.

24. Under Control

“Now the smoke has cleared and the end is near
It was my illusion
Like a broken dream, I was incomplete
But your love was never the missing key”

This is a touching way to wrap up the record, a feeling of all the pieces coming together. The melody is deep and powerful and has me imagining reaching the top of a mountain after a long fight and exhaling deeply to breathe in the fresh air. Losing someone is perhaps one of the most out-of-control feelings you can experience, being forced to confront such heavy and uncomfortable feelings. But as soon as you let yourself feel them, you can finally release. Ironically, by letting yourself lose control, is how you end up regaining control.

25. Flashlight

“Do you remember boy when you were so cruel?
When you played the thief and I played the fool
And I, I’ll make you move, I’ll make you move, I’ll make you move
Spent so long crying over you, now I’m coming your way
Gonna make you move, I’ll make you move, I’ll make you move, I’ll make you move”

The end of heartbreak has arrived. All those previous songs about feeling powerless, defeated, and controlled — it’s all over now. With a flashlight in your hand, representing a strong intuition that paves the way, you have taken back your power. Instead of running away in fear, or going back and forth, you’re moving ahead in life and no one can get in your way. When your demons come back to haunt you, you don’t hide in darkness, you shine your light and tell them to get out of your way. This fast-paced electro song is full of confidence.


Part II keeps up with the theme of struggling to let go and moving through the phases of grief, but there is so much more faith and positivity. There are still moments of hopelessness and despair, yet the comebacks grow stronger.


Conclusion

“Halcyon” refers to peace, and what do you think about, when you hear the word “peace”? Most likely you think of happiness, perfection, having everything you desire. However, peace is far more complex than that, and nearly the opposite of what we tend to imagine it as. Peace is the opposite of war and conflict, but it’s also the opposite of pleasure and instant gratification. What is truly stands for, is “freedom.”

The grieving process takes you through the journey of seeking peace. Through denial, you attempt to ignore what disturbs you or makes you restless. Through anger, you fight against the persistence of peace. Through bargaining, you try controlling peace on your own terms. Through sadness, you begin let yourself accept what makes you feel out of control. And by finally surrendering that control, through acceptance, you find yourself back in control again. But it never seems to happen in that exact order, and acceptance is not the final conclusion.

When I listen to this album, I hear a story being told. This is about a person who is going through a breakup or any type of loss that requires letting go of the past and searching for tranquility, better times ahead. What I appreciate about Goulding is that she not does victimize herself or vilify anybody else, she does acknowledge the pain that she suffered through but also acknowledges the new space for better times ahead.

Peace manifests as two sides of the same coin — there’s the passive side: “everything is different and scary, but that’s okay, there’s nothing I can do,” and then there’s the active side: “by accepting defeat, I take back my control, and I do what my intuition says.”

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11 thoughts on “Album Review: “Halcyon Days” by Ellie Goulding

  1. This is a lovely review and I’m so happy she has announced that she’s pregnant! Also I do not believe that her and Calvin never dated, they have so much chemistry. I definitely think Lights is my favourite song from the album which I’m sure is a popular opinion (but for a reason)

    Liked by 3 people

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