“All we do is think about the feelings that we hide,” Halsey sang on ‘Drive’, the dark pop song from her 2015 debut album ‘Badlands’. You could never accuse the New Jersey star of concealing her feelings when it comes to interviews or social media – she’s always been very open about most aspects of her life via those mediums. But in her two albums so far she’s kept some distance between herself and her stories, wrapping them in concepts like ‘Badlands’’ dystopian vision and the Shakespearean tragi-romance of ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’. Even calling herself Halsey – an anagram of her real name, Ashley – keeps her both at arm’s length from her output and at the heart of it.
‘Manic’, her third album, strips away the concepts and presents us, for the very first time, with Ashley – no masks, no distractions. Yesterday (January 16), she shared a trailer for the record on Twitter featuring tiny snippets of every track. It ended with the words: “An album made by Ashley for Halsey”. That really sums the whole thing up – this is her most personal release yet and feels like the work of someone excavating the lessons learned from their experiences.
With the lyrics on ‘Manic’, Halsey guides you along that learning curve. She’s always been a dab hand at writing lines that hit you square in the chest, but this record’s lyrics words are some of her most affecting yet. “I don’t wanna be somebody in America just fighting the hysteria / I only wanna die some days,” she sings with gentle resignation on the softly bubbling opener ‘Ashley’. On ‘You Should Be So Sad’ – a missive to an ex set to fingerpicked country guitars interjected with distorted riffs and fragments of noise that whip in and out like sirens – she’s brutally honest in her assessment of a failed relationship. “You’re not half the man you think that you are,” she begins, before alluding to a past miscarriage. “I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you / ’cause you can’t love something unless there’s something in it for you.”
Most candid of all, though, are the Latin-pop-influenced ‘Still Learning’ and the bright, string-laced closer ‘929’ (named for her birthday, September 29). On the former, she sings matter-of-factly: “Should be living the dream but I’m living with a security team / And that ain’t gonna change – I’ve got the paranoia in me.”
The latter takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness musing on family, love, and fame. “They said don’t meet your heroes, they’re all fucking weirdos,” she sings, a wickedly dark kicker following seconds later: “And god knows that they were right / Because nobody loves you, they’ll just try and fuck you / And put you on a feature on the B-side.” It’s one of the most simple songs Halsey has ever released, but it’s also one of the most brilliant – an unflinchingly honest, emotional wander through her mind that both shines a light on her insecurities and feels like a letting go of old traumas. “Lost the love of my life to an ivory powder,” she sighs at one point. “But then I realised that I’m no higher power / And I wasn’t in love then and I’m still not now / I’m so happy I figured that out.”
When talking about this new album Rolling Stone last year, Halsey described it as “hip-hop, rock, country, fucking everything – because it’s so manic… It’s literally just, like, whatever the fuck I felt like making; there was no reason I couldn’t make it.” That’s pretty accurate. The singer has called this the first album she’s written in the midst of a manic period and it often feels like the fast-paced race of a brain in overdrive, full of the invincible confidence that it can pull off the torrent of ideas spilling through it. It dances from twinkling, twisted fairytale pop (‘Forever’) to dive bar rock (‘3am’), romantic country swoons (‘Finally // beautiful stranger’) AND apprehensive atmospherics (‘Suga’s Interlude’), each step sounding as natural as the last.
The album features three guests across its 16 tracks, each given their own “interlude” – both a break from Halsey’s regular programming and a complement to it. Dominic Fike is first to appear, his turn taking the final lines of ‘Forever’ (“Talk to your man, tell him he’s got bad news coming”) and making them sound far more liberating, set to radiant strings and layered up like a Beach Boys song. Later, BTS rapper Suga joins Halsey to navigate the pressures of achieving your dreams and feeling like you’re falling out of love with what you once longed for, while Alanis Morissette lends her distinctive looping holler to ‘Alanis Interlude (Better Man)’. Their voices play off each other – Morissette’s rich and theatrical, Halsey’s cool and detached – as the young star calmly declares: “Your pussy is a wonderland and I could be a better man / It doesn’t matter to me.”
Those cameos are neat additions to the record – a boost for a rising star, a nod to an influential icon, and another demonstration of the strong connection between Halsey and BTS – but still what makes ‘Manic’ so great is Halsey herself. This album is very much a document of her life, her love, her pain, her hope, presented with all barriers down. The musician’s previous concepts have both been compelling in themselves but, by stripping back the stories to their very personal core, Halsey has made a record that is as thrilling as it is vulnerable, and her best effort yet. This is Ashley’s world; it’s really nice to meet her.
- Label: Virgin/EMI
- Relelase date: January 17