Halsey is at her best either when she’s angsty and alternative or when she’s sweet and highlighted by instrumentals. She’s at her worst when her music sounds like formulaic pop music designed for the radio. Her new album Manic, released on January 17, 2020, includes songs of all three types.
Halsey entered the spotlight when her song “Ghost” blew up on Soundcloud. The attention got her a record deal, and she went on to release her debut album Badlands in 2015. It was an alt-pop record filled with innovative electronic beats. In 2017, she released her second album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. In this album, she leans in to pop more and sounds kind of mainstream. In Manic, Halsey gets introspective about being famous and about her personal struggles with relationships and health. It is a blend of musical styles, sometimes angsty and sometimes hopeful.
Songs like “Ashley” and “Alanis’ Interlude” are reminiscent of Halsey’s old sounds that were more noticeable in Badlands. Halsey’s soft-spoken voice is accompanied by electronic beats to create a sexy alternative sound which then breaks into a catchy, louder chorus.
An example of this is in “Ashley” when she sings softly and bluntly, “And I don’t wanna be somebody in America / Just fighting the hysteria / I only wanna die someday,” but then raises her pitch and sings, “Someday, someday / When I burst into flames / I’ll leave you the dust my love.” The song “Alanis’ Interlude” also seems to follow this pattern, opening the song with a seductively catchy hook, singing, “A shining badge, a suit to match / Bit my nails down so they wouldn’t scratch / But who believes in needs like these / I’ll take two of ‘em, please.”
Halsey also uses the guitar to create sweet songs that showcase her voice. An example of this is “You Should Be Sad.” In this song, a catchy, calming guitar melody provides a backdrop for Halsey to muse on a past relationship. She sings, “No, you’re not half the man you think that you are / And you can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, drugs and cars / I’m so glad I never had a baby with you / ‘Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you.”
Some of the songs on the album feel a little boring. “Graveyard” and “Without Me” come to mind. Their choruses feel too predictable. I don’t think these types of songs do her voice justice. She sounds so much more interesting when she sings in that blunt, grungy, storytelling-like way, backed up with electronic beats.
In Manic, Halsey does something really interesting where she combines her alternative styles that are more Badlands-esque with the more pop-like music from her second album, to create fun pop songs that don’t forsake her unique sound. “3am” does this nicely. Even though the song’s chorus does not sound particularly unique, its poppiness is fun, and Halsey still throws in bits of uniqueness here and there.
In the past, Halsey has been criticized for seeming inauthentic. In an interview with The New York Times, she was quoted as calling herself “tri-bi,” a reference to the fact that she is bi-racial, bi-sexual, and bi-polar. This rubbed many people the wrong way, who interpreted it as a tasteless marketing ploy, but Halsey claims she was misquoted. Another facet of her struggle with authenticity is how some of her music can sound basic and impersonal.
In Manic, many of Halsey’s songs amend this. She opens up about her relationships, her struggles with endometriosis — a reproductive health illness — and desiring motherhood but struggling to know if she’ll obtain it because of her disease, and her experiences being bipolar and being famous.
One of her most raw songs is “929,” which opens with her rambling about the time and date she was born at. The song is a reflection of her journey. She sings, “And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee / And I hoped that my father would finally call me / And it’s just these things that I’m thinking for hours.” This song is a deep reflection on what she’s struggled with, and it feels very honest, very authentic.
Halsey’s new album Manic mixes together the musical styles she’s experimented with throughout her career to open up about her life journey. In doing so, she has created an energetic album that, for the most part, is fresh and revealing. However, there are a few duds.