Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Halsey is likely to have a strong opinion on her, though between a musical canon that spans tedious to insufferable, songwriting that’s designed to appeal to the edgiest of edgy thirteen-year-olds and no one else, and the sort of deification from a fanbase that reaches borderline comical levels, it’s difficult to see why those opinions would be positive. Even so, the person this all seems to have affected most is Halsey herself, tucked away in her echo chamber that leads to beliefs that shit like Closer with The Chainsmokers and the abominable Not Afraid Anymore for the 50 Shades Darker soundtrack are quality pieces of music, and that her utterly derivative Tumblr-pop is actually ‘alternative’.
So okay then, at the behest of the artist, let’s judge Hopeless Fountain Kingdom as an alternative album, which pretty much begins and ends at the fact that this is not an alternative album. Even under the drastic semantic shifts the term has undergone, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom has all the gloss, polish and heavily synthetic composition of a modern pop album. And honestly, it should just own that, because already the instrumental progression between this and Halsey’s debut Badlands is tangible. Obviously the mechanical, needlessly bleak beats are still here on tracks like Eyes Closed and Devil In Me, but when that’s complemented by the textured tribal percussion of 100 Letters, the glitzy, Golden Age strings and horns of Alone and especially the sleek ’80s synth line of Strangers which carries some real subtly and tension, that’s definitely a positive.
It even makes Halsey come across as a more natural, comfortable performer too. Her light warble still doesn’t have the most range, and when it’s drowned in effects as on Hopeless it can really grate, but this more fluid instrumental style definitely has a knock-on effect. Strangers is probably the best example, pairing Halsey with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui with both of them sticking to their reserved lower ranges, and against the tight synths, there’s some real tact here that makes this easily Halsey’s best song to date.
But when it comes to problems with Halsey’s music, the biggest issue has always come in the songwriting, namely the presentation and attitude, and any former problems remain unresolved here. The main issue comes in Halsey’s two default modes of distanced and melodramatic; in the former, there’s a track like Eyes Closed, where Halsey casually goes between partners to get over her ex with the sort of glazed-over delivery that indicates a casual disinterest (as well as the influence of The Weeknd as a co-songwriter); for the latter, there’s Devil In Me, which sees her lament the faults in her relationship, the unconvincing circumstances that will awaken her inner demons. Clearly there’s a distance in both of these towards the subject matter itself, and that’s really where the problem comes in. If these songs are meant to be coming from a personal place, allegorically framed through this album’s loose Romeo And Juliet-esque narrative or not, there’s such a coldness to them that feels like the lack of interest in anything that many see in Halsey’s artistic persona, and when the primary audience is young people likely to be going through similar situations, so much of this album feels disingenuous in the way it’s presented. It also manifests in the shrewd way that Halsey seems to denote the relationships here; this is in no way to disparage or deny Halsey’s sexuality, but the bisexual angle is played to an almost calculated degree, with Strangers and Bad At Love portraying same-sex relationships completely out of the blue. It feels like pandering to a demographic that Halsey already has on lock, but in such a manner that drastically limits the overall impact to anyone outside of it.
The stans might be pissed off, but Hopeless Fountain Kingdom just can’t competently portray the complicated emotional scenarios that Halsey clearly wants to explore. The effort is commendable, and the fact that some brighter instrumental tones have finally been brought in to a greater degree definitely makes it seem more natural, but as a songwriter, Halsey’s work lacks the sort of nuance and depth that it really should have to tackle these topics effectively. For as much of an improvement as this is, there’s still a long way to go before Halsey becomes an artist worth banking on in the long run, even if this is at least a start.
For fans of: Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Troye Sivan
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’ by Halsey is out now on Astralwerks.