The reason that Halsey has unequivocally failed as a pop star over the last few years is that she’s shown nothing interesting about her. It’s not like she doesn’t have anything at all, as the fleeting moments of quality from 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom showed, but with the majority of singles that subsequently became hits defaulting to dour, drained modern pop without even a modicum of personality, it’s hard to find much tangible appeal. At least in her early days as a borderline archetypal Tumblr-girl looking to jump on any bandwagon with as much urgency as possible, she might have been insufferable but it was at least something. Right now though, with all the discourse around Halsey being an ‘alternative’ artist effectively gone and her assimilating into the modern pop landscape with barely a whimper, there’s very little to say about her in any capacity. That all casts an almost opaque shadow over Manic, not only being released in pop music’s Kryptonite month of January, but having done very little to move the needle of excitement in any direction. Sure, Without Me did end up as one of the biggest hits of 2019, but that felt dictated by inertia as opposed to any real groundswell, and given that, besides Graveyard and its latching on to that residual momentum, no other pre-release singles have done nothing whatsoever, Manic is striving to make its impact on the pop landscape on a considerable back foot and with severely diminished expectations.
Which is why Halsey has done possibly the smartest thing she could have with this album – she’s completely rejected the idea of being a traditional pop star. Rather, Manic feels akin to a modern 1975 album in its sprawling, disjointed tones and genre shifts, but stripped of the artifice that so regularly characterises that band. For what is supposed to be a distinctly personal album, Manic actually feels like the product of a singular, single-minded individual instead of Halsey the megastar, and in what effectively amounts to stacking the deck in her favour within a career that could’ve severely benefited from that a long time ago, this is unquestionably her strongest effort to date.
That’s generally rooted to an examination of herself that’s a lot more raw than Halsey has put on record previously, albeit not totally divorced from a few of the trappings that have coated her past work. There’s still the connection to a fairly recognisable piece of source material, this time being Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, with Halsey forging parallels between herself and the character of Clementine (made as obvious as possible by titling the first two tracks Ashley and clementine), and setting that as the basis for where her emotional thread runs. It’s a pretty blatant self-insert once again, but one that Halsey can actually pull off this time, and the comparison points of being capricious, reckless and overall uncertain do come as more fleshed-out emotions when she’s always under the microscope and free of the artifice. There’s still a hint of that old reliance on melodrama that feels more out of place than ever on Without Me’s casual airing of dirty laundry and the rather skeletal revenge fantasy of killing boys, but on the flip side there’s You should be sad, achieving the same result as the former but connecting in its righteousness and bubbling-over intensity, or Forever // beautiful stranger, where solace is found in meeting someone new, even though falling too hard too soon has never yielded positive results in the past. And it’s the fact that these aren’t glitzy, sexed-up flaws that makes Manic feel more real; perhaps for the first time, Halsey feels like an actual human addressing human weakness and shortcomings instead of a composite of Hollywoodised ‘flaws’ that never felt as though it was coming from a real place. It’s so much easier to buy how much a string of failed relationships has taken a toll on her, especially on a song like 3am where a self-medicating stupor has her craving any sort of intimacy simply just to feel something. And yet, between the acknowledgments of her own predispositions for self-sabotage on Forever … (is a long time) and I HATE EVERYBODY, examinations of sexuality on Alanis’ Interlude and the desire for motherhood on More, it’s arguably the most sympathetic that Halsey has ever been as a narrator, capped off by 929 where nearly two-and-a-half decades of inner struggle and self-examination culminate in a place where she’s accepting of her vices, and is looking to move forward despite, or perhaps because of them.
And what’s especially easy to like about all of this is how it feels grounded in creative decisions that feel more indicative of that insular scope, whether through their own scope or the creative decisions made that micromanaged pop simply wouldn’t even humour. Having artists as varied as Dominic Fike, Alanis Morissette and BTS’ Suga contribute interludes feels like a newfound flexing of Halsey’s creative muscle, but then there’s the country rollick interspersed by blaring roars of guitar on You should be sad, or the tense 2000s alt-rock of 3am that could easily be the best thing she’s ever done. Primarily though, Manic is coloured by a much smaller take on alt-pop, and while there’s a good amount of variety within this, it’s also where the cracks in the album are the most blatant. The intention seems to be to emulate affectations of dreamier yet ramshackle swell on I HATE EVERYBODY or the content sway of Finally // beautiful stranger across the album, but it’s not something that really happens all that much, and in terms of its instrumentals, a lot of Manic is broken down by its various demarcations of simultaneous pleasantness and forgettability. Of course there are outliers, of which the washed-out modern pop of Without Me comfortably fits the bill and continues to prove why it shouldn’t have been included on this album at all, but the shrunken synths and rapid, clapping beat of Graveyard and the deeper, tropical thrum of Still Learning don’t leave much of an impression, even if they’re not all that egregious to listen to. The bigger issue is how easily songs can simply dip or trail off thanks to the washed-out synths and very minimalist production that a lot of them ride on; there’s definitely texture there and it facilitates a move away from both the assembly-line pop and clunky experimentation that’s long since been a sticking point of Halsey’s work, but she’s still yet to find something that could click across an entire project. If anything, embracing her rock or country side feels like the best option, as that gives her the room to show off a rougher vocal timbre and allow her to move away from the curt, warbling delivery that still isn’t all that appealing.
But even despite all of that, there’s a level of commitment to her own demystification and deconstruction that gives Halsey more of the edge on Manic than ever before. It’s less reinvention and more progression, breaking away from the glaring flaws that have so regularly been present and putting down something a lot more real and personal, and representative of where her ideals as both an artist and a person lie. Even with the sonic selection that’s not always top quality, there’s a lot to genuinely like here, featuring some of Halsey’s best ever songs and foundation that not only feels natural to build on, but ultimately fruitful too. If this is indicative of where Halsey is going as an artist, then it’s the sort of metamorphosis that’s enormously easy to support, an artist finally finding her feet after spending so much time getting it wrong, and coming out with a surprising, potent and crucially rewarding album.
For fans of: Lorde, Alanis Morissette, Brockhampton
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Manic’ by Halsey is out now on Capitol Records.