Sunday, January 19, 2020

Review: Manic • Halsey

Halsey once just resembled a pop star. When she premiered, she sang sticky hooks from beneath technicolor wigs across a tight-knit concept record – but she did so from the confinement of playlist-level fame. When an unexpected number one single became her springboard into next-level fame, she jumped on it. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, her sophomore attempt, documented her transition: It swapped saturated synthpop for greyscale trap-pop, tailored made for airplay. And it worked: Though far less interesting than her debut, the album debuted atop the American chart and has since been minted platinum.

Today, Halsey is a pop star: The past few years in her career have spawned another number one single and a handful more within the top 20, high-profile award show performances, tabloid romances, and a cameo appearance in Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born. And in turn, her third studio record, Manic, is more committed to a bonafide pop star lifestyle than ever before. In fact, it may better resemble Gaga’s Born This Way than, say, Halsey’s own Badlands, as she uses the album to push against her career's existing construct.

Unlike her last two releases, Manic is unshackled from the caveat of a conceptual world and feels genuinely firsthand. Like a hundred crumpled letters never sent to an ex, these tracks capture the five stages of grief – and more than a few other emotions in between them – in independent segments. “Without Me,” which began this album's narrative, feels of another era in some respects. A song like “You Should Be Sad,” which carries on the “Without Me” message via country music's "other woman" song archetype, knocks the album into a different sonic landscape, and minimalist "I HATE EVERYONE” moves the needle more towards singer-songwriter.

Ultimately, Manic dulls her saturated landscapes and pushes her voice’s nuances forward. She settles on a fine combination: Streaming-ready pop (the spectacular “Graveyard,” “Killing Boys”), acoustic singer-songwriter, and mid-aughts pop-rock. Alanis Morissette co-signs the record on "Alanis' Interlude," a grimy, explicit dedication to Halsey's bisexuality. And though it is a desperate plea for some late-night phone sex, “3am” is triumphant in owning an aggressive chaos that would make Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne envious in their heydays. It hints at what Manic could have been, had it continued in line with now-orphaned single “Nightmare,” a ball of rage released earlier this year.

Although Halsey acknowledges an emotional wildfire – apart from romantic mishaps, electroballad “More” bleeds the reminders of a miscarriage – that may leave a young woman scorn, Manic does not resonate any lingering anger. “Clementine” and “929,” for example, are uncomplicated streams of consciousness, buzzing with nostalgia for her childhood and carrying hope for her current well-being. “Finally // Beautiful Stranger” is a quaint love song tucked away at the album's core. They all work in tandem to bring peace and balance to an otherwise restless story line, providing a welcomed change to the Halsey archetype: The record listens more like a comedown from a manic episode than a snapshot within one.

Manic is available now under Capitol Records.

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