Halsey is a now-twenty-five-year-old pop star, who, around five or six years ago, blew up seemingly out of nowhere. Now known for her various artistic looks and vocal activism, she’s become one of the more popular artists around, with two number one singles and two number one albums on the Billboard charts. Critically, she’s had a mixed past, with many reviewers recognizing her potential and talent, while still being underwhelmed with either her songwriting or production. But on her third studio album, Manic, many thought she would be able to break through these trends. Sadly, on my end, the trend continues.
In a nutshell, Manic is a collection of all pop genres, diluted down to their most basic, radio-standard traits, and sculpted around an attempt at a vulnerable, relatable record. The emotions and ideas behind many of the songs are perfectly fine, showing off a genuine side of Halsey and many of the struggles she has, and has had. But when everything is coated in generic, safe, and uninteresting qualities – often including the songwriting and lyricism themselves – there’s not much left to love about the release.
Manic‘s intro track is “Ashley,” a song all about internal reflection and many of the things that make her life difficult. Which is fitting considering it’s a song named after herself. But the emptiness of the music around her ruins any potential gain she gets from her poetic lyrics. “Apart from my beating heart / It’s a muscle, but it’s still not strong enough to carry the / Weight of the choices I’ve made,” she sings, trailing off towards the end. It’s easy to tell her lyricism has, generally, improved since the borderline-dumpsterfire that was her first studio album, Badlands (2015). Now, it’s the distorted, soundcloud-esque beat behind her that takes everything beneficial and throws it out the window. In several instances, it’s okay to have a hollow-sounding album or track to provide a better focus on other parts of the song, but it’s not hollow in terms of how it influences the environment. It’s hollow in that it provides little to no substance in any form, coming off like an amateur, online trip-hop artist. Then, as an outro, the piece finishes with a sample from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). “I’m just a fucked up girl lookin’ for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours,” Clementine says. I imagine this addition is meant to empower, and strengthen Halsey’s persona, but in my opinion, the nod to Eternal Sunshine is a bit on the nose, and a cliche way to get that across, when she could’ve done it herself.
Next, of course, we have “clementine,” a song reminiscent of Lana Del Rey, but without the newer, improved personality. The track consists of calm, quiet guitar chords mixed with a bedroom-pop drum beat straight out of any indie-pop album. The individual verses of this track are more than acceptable, with semi-impressive word play. But when you get to the chorus, the repetition combines with the unchanging, three minute instrumental, to create more of a sleepy track than anything. If there were more to either the chorus or the production, I think this could satisfy as an emotional ballad, but instead, it falls just short.
Halsey’s debut record, Badlands.
The underwhelming production only continues throughout most of the album, with “Alanis’ Interlude” featuring the same drum loop for a solid three minutes, with a few layers of synths added on toward the end of the song. Hit single “Graveyard,” while more energetic, is still void of much interesting material. The majority of the track would sound the exact same no matter the melody in the background, due to the heavy underwater effect used on it. And almost any usage of a clap track is an immediate musical sin in the year 2020. So the fact that the entire chorus is driven by it is a little annoying.
The songs that aren’t guilty of sounding stale – literally – sound stale in their lack of originality. Probably her most well-known track from the release, “Without Me,” I could not pick out of a lineup of radio hits. The pseudo-hip-hop beat and (once again) underwater synths do have a stark contrast to the breakdown in the chorus, to straight piano, but the track overall doesn’t provide much to peak someone’s interest. Sadly, “Finally // beautiful stranger,” one of the more mentally stimulating and catchy tracks, wouldn’t stand out of a crowd of one hundred female pop-country pieces. In fact, if you told me she stole the instrumental from an old Carry Underwood or Taylor Swift song, I might have believed you.
The best parts about this release are the strong messages Halsey broadcasts about mental health, sexuality, poor relationships, and others, behind more than passable vocal and lyrical performances. The backbone of this record isn’t empty and exploitative. It’s clear Halsey does have some genuine care into this, and I don’t want to invalidate anything she says on the record, especially anything coming from personal experience. If anything, I’m disappointed that it’s mostly the production that lets her down. There are a few touchy spots for her personally, with the song “I HATE EVERYBODY” being a bit cringey, and “SUGA’s Interlude” seeming like a thrown-in track for a free BTS feature, but I do think, for the most part, what she contributed was pretty good.
Overall, Halsey doesn’t do much worse than several mainstream pop artists. I can’t say she’s miles behind Selena Gomez or some of her other contemporaries, but she doesn’t do any better with this record either. Despite attempting to be a genuine exploration of Halsey’s inner thoughts and relatable struggles, Manic ends up clouding all of those ideas in a smoke created for the standard radio listener. I hold out hope that Halsey can create something worthwhile, with a few potential sparks showing themselves on this record, but none were able to start a full fire. I’m thinking a 4/10 on this one.
Favorite Track(s): “Finally // beautiful stranger”
Least Favorite Track(s): “clementine,” “Graveyard”