Halsey Masters Pop as Catharsis With ‘Manic’

Halsey skyrocketed to stardom on social media, and managed to go platinum with her 2015 debut “Badlands” despite critical consensus that it lacked a radio hit. For her followup, 2017’s “ Hopeless Fountain Kingdom,” Halsey took a more overtly pop direction, and achieved considerable commercial success. It wasn’t until the lead single for her latest album, however, that she scored her first number one hit. The song, “Without You” was born out of heartbreak and neurosis, and demonstrated a new directness in Halsey’s songwriting. Moreover, the singles that followed showcased an unanticipatedly broad stylistic range, enough so to warrant the title “Manic.” Previously, Halsey dreamed up characters, and wove fanciful narratives, but this time, she relinquishes such conceits. She simply lets it all out, via whatever musical channels, and puts on a spellbinding performance.

From the onset, she presents herself as the heroine of her own story, unscrambling the anagram of her moniker, for a candid look. “Ashley” is a chilling opener that finds her baring all in a total emotional unleash, over a dark, trip-hop soundscape full of dramatic stops and haunting ambience. She sings, “Standing now, in the mirror that I built myself,” setting off on a merciless journey of self-introspection and realization. She is both victim and culprit, as she works to untangle her romantic neuroses, confessing, “I spilled my guts / I left you to clean it up,” and spilling her guts in the most histrionic fashion, leaving you in unresolved tension. The track culminates with a sample of Kate Winslet, playing Clementine in the mind-bending 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Halsey’s invocation of Clementine is about owning and celebrating one’s quirks and eccentricity. A single named after the character, released on Halsey’s twenty-fifth birthday, is the perfect sonic demonstration of this, with a refrain of “I don’t need anyone” simultaneously sung and screamed coyly. Halsey curls up her voice, up close, sounding at times like a deranged baby, over a lullaby melody that repeats to resolution as she expels her demons.

“Graveyard,” a single debuted at Rihanna’s “Savage x Fenty” fashion show, is a kooky tune with syncopated handclaps, and Halsey donning a deranged houl and devil-may-care attitude, letting her lines trail away off-key deliberately, and playing with her pronunciation, as she often does, at moments approaching the likes of Fever Ray in her whimsical melody and intonation. As on other songs, love and tragedy come together, in lyrics like “Oh, it’s funny how the warning signs can feel like they’re butterflies.” This sentiment finds its way into the merciless breakup ballad, “You Should Be Sad,” written in the aftermath of the singer’s relationship with rapper G-Eazy. For this song, Halsey draws from her time in Nashville, fleshing out her feelings in a country-inspired tune. Over a minimal pulse and acoustic guitar arpeggios, she winces and wallows, in a full, genuine outpouring, as roaring guitars and haunting choirs create a thunderous cacophony from the storm inside her head. 

On “Forever…(is a long time,)” Halsey gets especially dreamy. She sings over an ornate and fanciful Disney-like arrangement, adopting an outlandish accent, almost like Bjork, to bring it over the top. The instrumental is a poignant peak, otherworldly and cavernous. Halsey is a master at stretching conventional pop songs with her angst and energy, but for this number, she goes further out, and makes an impact in a different way. She sings, “Talk to your man, tell him he’s got bad news comin’,” a warning repeated in the following track, “Dominic’s Interlude,” featuring singer

Dominic FIke, who sounds like radio played through radio, delivering a sweeping chorus with cascading vocal harmonies in a tune that fits Sergeant Peppers pageantry to ultra-pop millennial production. There’s a seamless transition into the promisingly titled “I HATE EVERYBODY,” on which Halsey becomes even more of a drama queen, seeking validation in the unattainable, her expressive voice belting away in full diva mode, building to the climactic chorus line of a swelling, portentous track. 

Things get more upbeat on “3am.” The shameless cliche overload of the blaring, glossed-out radio rock can be a bit irritating, but it works because of how over-the-top it is. The triumphant melody ot he crazed chorus fits Halsey’s character just right, ringing like something of a panic attack as a pop song. Next comes the lead single, “WIthout Me,” another song inspired by G-Eazy. This personal and direct tune was originally intended as a supposed “stand-alone record,” but made its way onto the album after hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The pointed melancholy of the catchy chorus, as Halsey bellows the refrain,“Thinking you could live without me,” makes for an elegantly, effective emotional pop song. It’s as it you can hear the cathartic process of venting affecting Halsey in real time. Come the next tune, “Finally // Beautiful Stranger,” her voice sounds airy, as if she has literally risen. She alternates between sedated verses and strained choruses, singing a melody with a vaguely ‘90s alternative feel. Although Halsey has described the track as “the first love song that I’ve ever written,” it’s ultimately still tinged with tragedy, as she reflects, “I know that beautiful strangers only come along to do me wrong.”

Bisexuality has long been a theme in Halsey’s music, and it makes its way particularly directly into “Aanis Interlude,” which features the line ““Your pussy is a wonderland,” before a spoken sample attests, “Boys are just placeholders.” The duet features none other than Alanis Morissette, who delivers her catchy chorus with raw abandon, still nasal and angsty as one might expect. You can hear a similar quirk and passion in her voice as in Halsey’s, although the voices could hardly be more different. As if to drive the point home, Halsey proceeds with “Killing Boys,” a playfully spooky thump with another epic chorus, in which she repeats, “I don’t need you anymore” in a thematic reprise of “Without You” and “You Should Be Sad.”

Further star power appears on “SUGA’s Interlude,” featuring SUGA of K-pop sensation BTS. Halsey picked this song, one about falling in love, to feature SUGA, so as to emphasize a feeling that transcends language. SUGA’s fast rapping is slick and laidback, and the music is light and dreamy, spacious and understated. Next,“MORE” features a wailing, infectious, theatrical number, with a chorus that overwhelms the song, a bit like “Without You,” except to a different tune, as Halsey insists, “But somehow I just want you more.” Then, “Still Learning” places the singer over dancehall stylings. She naturally settles into a groove and bellows away powerfully, letting out the revelatory exclamation, ““But I’m still learning to love myself.” Finally, “929” is a spacious, simple, guitar-led meditation that finds Halsey having got a burden off her chest, hovering above in a moment of clarity, with still strain, but now also composure in her voice. Full of vivid lyrics about personal struggle, the song keeps the album open-ended, but displays Halsey, in her final moment, endeavoring to make sense of her wonderfully chaotic life, as it goes on.  

“Manic” is a passionate and authentic artistic statement, with consistently commanding vocal performances, a madcap stylistic range, and a singular voice. While hip-hop, alternative rock, EDM, country, and more make their way into Halsey’s songs, the album still seems markedly focused, as Halsey’s direct, confessional songwriting and penchant for tragic histrionics ties them together. She manages to sound at once vulnerable and beaming, in a way that few singers can pull off. Instantly catchy tunes and hi-fi productions balance out the surfeit of angst and whimsy that make the songs stand out. A prime example of music as catharsis, Halsey’s latest album shows her venturing boldly forward. 

Manic” is available Jan. 17 on Apple Music.