Review: Who’s the real Halsey? On genre-hopping new album ‘Manic,’ elusiveness is a strength
On May 1, Halsey wore a shiny suit jacket to join BTS for a televised rendition of their euphoric disco-pop collaboration “Boy With Luv” at the Billboard Music Awards. Less than three weeks later, the singer was back on screens with a bloody nose in the video for her song “Nightmare,” in which she sings about the “wreckage of my life” over a thrashing electro-metal beat.
The two performances demonstrated the uncommon stylistic and emotional range that’s made Halsey — whose aptly titled new album, “Manic,” dropped Thursday night — such a durable presence in the streaming age. If pop once required an easily branded persona, it now requires flexibility in its biggest stars; the narrative through line can be pieced together by the kids paying close attention on TikTok and Instagram.
To anyone watching from a distance, though, it’s not always been clear who precisely Halsey is — a blurriness that’s cost her among old-guard gatekeepers like those at the Recording Academy, which iced her out in nominations for this month’s Grammy Awards (just as it did in 2018 and 2019) even as her trap-goth “Without Me” finished last year with well over a billion streams on YouTube and Spotify.
You can tell the establishment’s disregard has stung; Halsey’s written about it on Twitter, and she used a win at November’s fan-voted American Music Awards to defensively shout out “the people who really … [care] about music.” And though “Manic,” her third LP, maintains her signature all-over-the-place approach, songs like “Clementine” and “I Hate Everybody” find her craving a kind of approval she suspects will never come.
“I should be living the dream,” she sings in “Still Learning,” “But I go home and I got no self-esteem.”
More strikingly, Halsey delves into a country-ish acoustic sound she’s never really tried before in “You Should Be Sad” and the very pretty “Finally // Beautiful Stranger,” which recalls the music Taylor Swift used to make back when the Grammys couldn’t get enough of her. Another track, “3am,” summons memories of late-period Red Hot Chili Peppers, of all things — complete with the Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith on drums. (All three of these tunes were produced by Greg Kurstin, one of a handful of A-list studio pros on “Manic” along with Benny Blanco, Louis Bell and Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas.)
Yet the surprisingly refined roots-and-rock stuff is just one part of what Halsey’s doing on an album that never settles on a distinct mood or point of view. Opener “Ashley” — a nod to Halsey’s real first name — ponders the prison of fame amid spooky synth squiggles; “Killing Boys” is a pounding revenge jam about keying some guy’s Ferrari. “Forever ... (Is a Long Time)” and “I Hate Everybody” — the former gloomy, the latter aggrieved — both surround Halsey’s voice with swirling psychedelic textures that make it only easier to hear whatever you want to hear.
And then there are the album’s so-called interludes — one with Suga of BTS, who raps over a slick K-pop groove; one with Dominic Fike, who does his dirtbag-Jack Johnson thing; and one with Alanis Morissette, who evidently took Halsey’s decision to leave “Nightmare” off the record as an opportunity to indulge her love of industrial music.
As on her earlier records, Halsey can feel like something of a phantom on “Manic,” even when her writing is as vivid as it is in “Graveyard,” which deploys an appealingly creepy metaphor about following a lover way too deep. But her singing, with its pleading tone and its slightly raspy edges, is growing more expressive. If you’re still not sure where she wants to go, you can tell how badly she wants to get there.
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