The have and have not of artistic credibility used to be pretty clear cut in the UK music scene in the 1980s. You had your pop stars, appearing on Top Of The Pops, wearing ridiculous costumes, spending (in the case of the really successful ones) hundreds of thousands of pounds on the blossoming music video phenomenon. Then you had your surly looking bands, sullen of expression in their hand-me-down clothes, earnest of word and writing music that was jumped upon and praised by the leftfield music press, but ultimately still left them sharing a scabby bedsit in the arse end of suburbia. It was clear; one group just wanted everyone to sing their song enough to want to go and buy it, the others believed they were artistically expressing themselves, whether to the detriment of the listener or not.
That's been changing ever since the turn of the 90s, from when the Stone Roses decided they would rather play to 20,000 people on an island than a few hundred at a Barfly, to when the BBC decided they were going to take a closer order of alternative music and started sending all their cameras down to Worthy Farm to cover Glastonbury, to Blur, Oasis and Britpop suddenly becoming commercial and political commodities and on and on ad infinitum. The point is that over the last twenty or so years this mythical 'indie cred' has become high profile and highly profitable. The BBC Sound of 2010 list, where we first met Ellie Goulding, has always tried to give the impression that the artists it's championing are the alternative; they're the bands, the underground producers and rappers. Yet there is no 'alternative' once you reach that level, winning the Sound list becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as you find yourself plastered on billboards, shown on the red button, welcomed into the music industry and given a Best Rising Star award at the BRITS so that everyone can slap themselves on the back and say, 'look, we were right all along!'
Which is why artists like Ellie Goulding rankle, because there's no doubt that the team around them only have profit in mind, and yet the marketing behind it tries to convince us that they're pedalling something of substance. Here's a thought; have you ever seen the 25-year-old in a live promo picture without holding a guitar? It doesn't happen often, because that outdated notion of guitars = indie still exists in the major label offices. Additionally, with Goulding, she's being pushed as the sort of girl-next-door, who underneath it all is still just a singer songwriter earnestly pouring her heart out. On this album they've given her room for two songs that do just that, non-entities called 'I Know You Care' and 'Dead In The Water'. Interviews see her still try to talk about recording techniques she's developed and experiments with sounds; yet listening through Halcyon doesn't really reveal much other than the sort of bland, all-the-EQ-up noise war production that's become common place as labels desperately attempt to shout louder than the rest, in order to clasp the pitiful drain of money that's coming into the industry.
The first two songs fly by swathed in echo, with big booming Florence-esque percussion; other current on-trend influences are ticked off too as the album progresses: the mind-grinding womp of mainstream dubstep (she is going out with Skrillex now after all), hi-end Guettaisms in 'Only You' and overbearing string arrangements. It all comes to a pretty horrific head on the track 'Figure 8', which culminates in some ghastly brostep-sounding chorus that seems to have been packed onto a Ryanair flight for a Club 18-30 holiday. In all of this compressed sound, the most disappointing thing is that they've not even really allowed Goulding's voice to flourish. She has a vocal that's pleasant if not exactly stand out, but all life in it's been stamped out through auto-tuning and correction, the singer sounding as though she's being possessed by the spirit of nothing at all. There are also these little dialectic ticks that crop up which, if one was being hugely cynical, go hand in hand with the humble countryside girl she's been portrayed for much of the last two years.
The final bugbear is this: pop used to be fun, it used to be stupid, it had no shelf life but it didn't matter too much because everyone looked like they were having a bloody great laugh. When record labels and execs decided that conveying a credible aesthetic was the way to go it meant that the music, whilst still ostensibly pop, got serious and po-faced. Halcyon is deadly serious, has no desire to poke fun at itself and is deadly boring as a result. It's simply not allowed; Ellie Goulding's for real you see, and for real means being earnest. No matter that the sounds around her are as incidental and throwaway as any of the past thirty years in mainstream culture, she has to remain to type, which ultimately makes Halcyon a schizophrenic listen, and Goulding an artist in a tug of war about just who she really is.