Halcyon Days is an expanded — or reloaded — version of Ellie’s album Halcyon featuring ten new tracks. And, honestly, every song is wonderful, so they could have just released it as a new album instead of tacking it onto Halcyon. I’m really curious as to why they didn’t do that. I’ve never really understood why they expand albums instead of releasing new ones. For example, Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster. There were only eight new tracks there, but they were all fabulous, so they could have released it as a long E.P or had her record two more songs and made it an album. Hell, they could have simply added a bunch of remixes at the end and it would have been long enough to be considered an album. Clearly, there was no need to add anything to Fame to get it to sell, as it had already had five major hit singles. They’ve similarly released expanded versions of Ke$ha’s debut and Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die and in both cases I thought they should have just made another song or two and released the new material as new albums. But, hey, that’s just my two cents. I’m sure these record labels know what they’re doing when they release these things. Well, one would hope so, but considering the shape the music business is in you could certainly make the argument that they don’t know what they’re doing half of the time. I suppose with Halcyon Days the idea was that they could make more money having people buy the new tracks as part of an expanded, pricey reloaded version of Halcyon than selling them at the price of a normal album. I say this because when the above-mentioned artists put out the reloaded versions of their albums the labels did release the new material as a stand alone disc, even though they technically didn’t consider it a new album. So, at least you had the option to just buy the new tracks if you’d already purchased the albums they were reloading. But with Ellie’s Halcyon Days, I don’t think you can just buy the new tracks. Even on iTunes and Amazon, a couple of them are “album only” tracks that you can’t buy individually. And, at the time of this writing, they’re selling this deluxe edition of Halcyon Days for $19.99 on iTunes. That’s right — twenty bucks for an album! Expanded or otherwise, I think that price is pretty steep. Especially when you’re basically making her fans buy the album a second time in order to get these new tracks. It really irks me that you can’t just buy the new material separately. I’d already bought Halcyon on vinyl and now I had to buy the Halcyon Days CD to get the new tracks. And, speaking of vinyl, I really hope they’ll release Halcyon Days on vinyl at some point. Or, better still, just release the ten new tracks on vinyl. They need to release Lights on vinyl, too, come to think of it. Maybe they already did in other parts of the world, but certainly not here in the States. But I’m really not here to bitch. I’m here to shower Ellie’s 10 new tracks with heaps of praise.
The new tracks begin with “Burn,” which recently scored Ellie her first number one on the UK singles chart. And I think that’s what they intended to do. In other words, I think they were striving to have a big hit single that would sell well, just as “Lights” did here in the states over a year after the album was released in the UK. (Factoid: the song “Lights” was only an iTunes bonus track when the album was first released in the UK. It wasn’t even on the CD until they tweaked it and rereleased Lights as Bright Lights.) After all, one of the four guys Ellie wrote “Burn” with is hit maestro Ryan Tedder, who penned Beyonce’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” (basically two different versions of the same song). Another one of the writers is Greg Kurstin, who also produced the track, and who’s worked wonders with Lily Allen, Kelly Clarkson, Sia and P!nk, among others. To be entirely honest, I’m not a fan of Tedder, but I am a huge fan of Kurstin, so I was able to put my feelings about Tedder’s work aside and simply enjoy “Burn” for the marvelous, sugary, synthy delight that it is. And, fortunately, “Burn” is the only song here that Tedder had a hand in.
2. “GOODNESS GRACIOUS”
Up next is “Goodness Gracious,” which Ellie and Kurstin wrote with Nate Ruess of fun. And it is, in fact, a very fun track. Kurstin produced it and gave it an electro-pop aesthetic similar to some of his work as one half of the duo The Bird & The Bee, which I’m a big fan of. But, clearly, it’s the catchy chorus that makes this one a winner. “Goodness gracious I can see the stars / Calling me out, callin’ me out just to keep crawling into your arms,” she sings passionately. But it’s not quite the pretty mainstream pop song you might think if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, which are actually somewhat dark, like many of the songs from Halcyon. “Loosen the noose and let go of the rope / I know if it’s never coming back it has to go,” Ellie sings, the song apparently being about someone who’s trying to break free from a relationship but for some reason just can’t sever ties with the person they want to leave yet.
3. “YOU, MY EVERYTHING”
This one begins interestingly with Ellie’s vocals all twisted up and stuttered over melancholic piano before she begins singing the lead vocal. Ellie co-wrote this one with Francis White, who also produced the track, and it consists of some savory dance beats highlighted by flashes of synth and jittery percussion. Here, again, Ellie’s lyrics are somewhat dark, the song being from the perspective of someone who loves someone who treats them poorly. “I know I’m gonna weep my heart out / You know I’m gonna try much harder / But it isn’t the shit in my head / Pulling me under this time,” she sings assertively. And when she sings “you, my everything” during the chorus, she might as well be singing “fuck you, my everything.” Bravo.
4. “HEARTS WITHOUT CHAINS”
Ellie wrote this one with Fraser T. Smith, who also produced the track. It mixes piano with clattering electro-beats for a song that’s perfectly melancholic. Lyrically, it’s Ellie at her darkest: “You wake up, I know it’s time to go / With a spinning head, I lie and watch you smoke / Chase the hands on my watch and hold you close / This misery is weightless as a stone,” she sings, showing the soulful side of her vocals, which is quite lovely. It seems the song is about two lovers who have issues or something to that effect, as part of the chorus goes, “If time was still / We’d have no fear or scars to heal / In our hearts without chains.”
5. “STAY AWAKE” (featuring Madeon)
Ellie wrote this one with two people who Wiki simply credits as Riddick and Leclercq. It was also produced by Leclercq, who goes by Madeon, and he gets a featuring credit, which I would say he deserves because he’s helped Ellie make one hell of a banger here. Damn, those beats are boisterous. Loud, loud, loud. Slamming. Insistent. And highly addictive. Also, Ellie’s lyrics are more optimistic here. It seems to be about someone telling their lover that they should seize the moment and savor their time — their night — together. Part of the third chorus: “We don’t have to wait till the morning / The sun will never go down / And we’ll be this way forever / We’ve got to take it now / Just stay awake, stay awake.”
6. UNDER CONTROL
Ellie had three co-writers on this terrific and inspiring tune. Why it takes so many people to write a song these days will always baffle me. Regardless, this one was written by Ellie, Bonnie McKee, Oliver Goldstein and Cory Nitta. Production was handled by Goldstein and Cory Enemy. Here, Ellie’s lyrics are even more optimistic: “I feel like I’m seeing again / I feel like I’m breathing again / I got it under control.” Good for her, I feel like screaming when I listen to this one after hearing the gloomier songs at the beginning of these tracks. The soulful element of her voice is ever present here and you can actually feel her enthusiasm when you listen to this one.
7. “FLASHLIGHT” (featuring DJ Fresh)
She had four co-writers on this ultra-synthy, futuristic track: George Astasio, Jonathan Shave, Jason Pebworth and Daniel Stein. It was produced by DJ Fresh, who adds perfect dubstep rumblings below the sort of smashing beats we’ve come to expect from Ellie during the chorus. “Get out of my way / Get out of my way / I’m coming through,” Ellie sings and you’d better clear a path. This is one hell of a self-empowerment anthem and she’s not taking anybody’s shit. Sweet!
8. “HOW LONG WILL I LOVE YOU”
This track is a cover of a ’90’s song by The Waterboys, which was written by Mike Scott. It’s a fairly simple piano ballad that reminds me of her excellent cover of Elton John’s “Your Song” from the re-release of Lights (and the regular edition of Lights here in the States). But there’s a big difference between the two. “Your Song” was pretty grandiose and epic. “How Long Will I Love You” is essentially the opposite, being subtle and tender, even once the moving strings join the mix. But, alas, both are brilliant piano ballads and prove that Ellie makes excellent choices when she selects songs to cover.
Speaking of Ellie choosing great songs to cover, “Tessellate” is an Alt-J cover, Alt-J being an immensely talented band from the UK that is hugely popular, at least in the blogosphere. Ellie and producer Xaphoon Jones of Chiddy Bang have created a rendition that’s mostly a downtempo electro-pop song. They really experimented with this one, sampling Ellie’s vocals and inserting chopped up bits of them in the background here and there throughout the song, rendering it quite moody. But the major thing they did was add saxophone, which somehow fits really well here, making the song that much more haunting. And I love how Ellie sings the lyrics and the way Xaphoon has made her voice sound. She really sounds like she’s in pain, which fits perfectly with the lyrics. Example: “Bite chunks out of me / You’re a shark and I’m swimming / My heart still thumps as I bleed / And all your friends come sniffing.” Powerful stuff.
10. “MIDAS TOUCH” (featuring Burns)
Finally, we have a cover of a song by Midnight Star written by Boaz Watson and June Watson. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never heard the original but I really like Ellie’s version, which Burns produced superbly, layering all sorts of percussive sounds around a pounding electro-beat. And there’s a lot going on in the background, too. Bits of Ellie’s vocals way off in the distance, echoing. Sometimes Burns even turns the pitch way down on these background snippets so they sound like it’s a guy slurring the lyrics. This is one of those songs you can listen to ten times and notice something else every time and it’s definitely one of those tunes that really gets inside of you and grows on you with repeated listenings.
So, have I convinced you to buy Halcyon Days now? I hope so. I just wish that those of you who’ve already bought Halcyon could just buy the new tracks without having to pay for the whole album all over again like I did. But, hey, these new songs are worth the price of an album anyway, even if it’s slightly overpriced at roughly 17 bucks on Amazon at the time of this writing (which is actually a bit less than it costs to download it).
And now, right after I save this, I am going to listen to these new tracks again, even though I’ve listened to them all at least three times while writing this review. I just want to hear it again without looking at it from a critic’s perspective and simply enjoy it.