Entertainment » Music


by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jan 23, 2020

"Manic" is the third and latest album by Halsey. Having once branded herself as "alternative," the star's new album is heavily informed by pop music — especially in terms of song structure, melodic content, and production aesthetics — and a sense of eclectic style, musically speaking. Halsey's lyrics throughout are open, contemplative, and at times uncomfortable. Despite a lengthy tracklist (16 songs!), the album moves quickly through its 47-minute run time. No song overstays its welcome — in fact, eight songs clock in under three minutes each. The end result strips away excess as Halsey gets right down to the heart of the matter.

What makes "Manic" so compelling, in part, is the way in which Halsey and her collaborators frame each track. "Clementine" has a child's song feel, with a basic back-and-forth synth-piano line over which Halsey sings "I don't need anyone, I need everyone." Veering more toward retro sounds, "Forever ... (Is a Long Time)" recalls classic pop in a similar vein to Fiona Apple's song "Extraordinary Machine." Halsey's song is adorned by hiss, as if we're listening to a vinyl record. And "I Hate Everybody" opens with flute synth patches reminiscent of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," while maintaining a classic pop/rock ballad structure and a strong vocal melody through. Halsey examines self-loathing, using sex and intimacy as a crutch: "if I could make you love me, maybe you could make me love me; and if I can't make you love me then I'll just hate everybody."

A quartet of songs at the end of the album is marked by a compelling austerity. "Killing Boys," a co-write with Fun lead vocalist Nate Ruess (among others), is a highly melodic vehicle for Halsey's vocals, accompanied by an energetic loop and synth bass and not much else. In "More," ambient synth and chant-like verses open into melodic chorus sections. The austere production suits the song perfectly — especially since its structure might've been dangerously conducive to bigger power-ballad production that would've ultimately diminished its charms. Similarly, "Still Learning," co-written by Ed Sheeran (among others), is a melancholy minor-key ballad with evocative synth flourishes and a rhythmic loop ("I should be living the dream but I go home and I got no self-esteem"). "929" features processed guitar accompaniment, its sparse arrangement similar to "More" in how it emphasizes Halsey's vocal and vulnerable lyrics ("I've stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would call me... lost the love of my life to an ivory powder, but then I realize that I'm no higher power").

Three collaborations with the ubiquitous singer/songwriter/producer Greg Kurstin — "You Should Be Sad," "3AM," and "Finally // Beautiful Stranger" — are as diverse as anything else on the album. The acoustic guitar-centered "You Should Be Sad" addresses a former lover in denial of latent unhappiness, escaping through money, drugs, and promiscuity. The album's only straight-up rocker, "3AM," swaggers like late-era Red Hot Chili Peppers (think: some of the better moments on the band's album "Stadium Arcadium"). And, the folky "Finally // Beautiful Stranger" shimmers with acoustic guitar and synths.

The album stumbles — admittedly, not very often at all — when it most resembles current pop aesthetics, and when its eccentricities feel too labored. The musical backdrop of "Graveyard" feels a little too cut-and-paste, recalling the sort of acoustic/EDM hybrids Madonna attempted on "MDNA" and "Rebel Heart." The same problem occurs with the spare R&B of "Without Me," which interpolates Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River." As previously mentioned, the otherwise charming indie-pop of "Finally // Beautiful Stranger" avoids pastiche but, strangely enough, problematically recalls the melodic and harmonic structure of 4 Non Blondes' early 1990s smash "What's Up?" And the musical eccentricity of "Alanis' Interlude" (which, of course, Alanis Morissette) overshadows provocative lyrics exploring sexuality.

Aside from the album's impressive musical diversity, Halsey's lyrics are compelling, fearless, and vulnerable. But don't mistake "Manic" for being confessional — a somewhat problematic term in that there is only so much an artist can confide in the space of a three to four-minute song. Joni Mitchell, another songwriter renowned for her allegedly "confessional" writing — and to be clear, writing that often feels profoundly revealing (for instance, her "Blue" album, some four decades down the line, is still highly affecting) — once asked, "to what did I confess?" Even still, the level of self-examination Halsey engages in here follows in the footsteps of emotionally stirring albums such as Tori Amos' "Little Earthquakes" and Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," among many others. And like those albums did for those artists, "Manic" establishes Halsey's artistic voice so distinctly that it will be exciting to see where she goes from here.

$13.98 (CD and digital bundle), $21.98 (vinyl and digital bundle)
Halsey's official store

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.


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