Capitol Records · January 17, 2020
Halsey’s past albums have been elaborate constructions of dream universes in which the story unfolds through song. Her first full-length album, Badlands, is set in a rocky desert alternative world, a reflection of the artist’s mental health at the time. Her second album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is a play on Romeo and Juliet that creates a kingdom of two dueling sects and focuses on the forbidden love between the main character, Luna Aureum, and her counterpart, Solis Angelus. The album plays with gender roles and sexuality assumptions using songs such as “Bad At Love” and “Strangers” that feature female love interests.
Manic departs from the past two albums in that it is not a construction of an alternative persona with which Halsey can share her voice, but a complete departure from any pretenses and a raw look into who Halsey, or Ashley, really is. The Spotify version of the album features a short clip at the beginning, in which Halsey introduces the ancient saying that each person has three faces: one they show to everyone, one they show to only those closest to them, and one that is the truest, most carnal version of oneself, which hides in the spaces in between. Manic is meant to offer listeners “a glimpse of that third face” – it is a chance for Halsey to take a step back and for Ashley to enter the stage. Halsey puts herself in full and sometimes painful scrutiny for this album, but the lyrical and emotional greatness that results makes her discomfort seem worthwhile.
Manic remains in Halsey’s domain of the impeccably planned and wondrous, however. Halsey’s mind has been given a scenery, and each song contains clever references and interconnections for fans to discover. Halsey’s birthday, September 29, is a number of significance on the album, providing both the name for the last track, “929,” and the release date of one of the album’s singles, “clementine.” “clementine” is inspired by the character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a quirky, lovable mess who erases all memories of her ex-boyfriend from her mind. The song that comes before it, “Ashley,” ends with a clip of a line from the movie.
The songs themselves vary in both their level of success and style. While Hopeless Fountain Kingdom was catered for the radio, Manic was written without a specific style in mind, and ranges from synth pop to country to rap to radio pop, a combination that can feel somewhat disjointed. The album is unified, though, by Halsey’s distinct indie voice and the overall theme of an exploration of different types of love, from romantic love to motherly love to self-love.
“Without Me” is the pop hit of the album, released as the first single after her public breakup with rapper G-Eazy. The song condemns the rapper for his string of cheating, a rumor that Halsey confirmed on her live performance of the song on Saturday Night Live. “Graveyard” and “3am” follow behind on the pop train, with varying levels of success. “Graveyard” is a powerful testimony of the altered thinking of someone in a toxic relationship, but “3am” struggles to convey its message and falls back on simple pop production.
“Finally // beautiful stranger” is a simple country-inspired song about falling in love with someone who finally makes you feel safe. The song differs from Halsey’s past music in that it doesn’t rely on heavy background production and veers toward country – the verses sound similar to Lady Gaga’s “Yoü And I.” This song is arguably one of the best Halsey has ever written. It’s simple, sweet, and authentic, its sentiment is universal, and Halsey’s voice is all the more powerful with the background synth sounds stripped away.
“clementine” is another one of the album’s most successful songs. Halsey sings of blackouts and breakdowns and a love that carries you through it all, and the simple piano in the background turns the song into a sort of real life fairytale.
“929” is the last song on the album, and it is by far Halsey’s most honest. In this song more than others, Halsey becomes Ashley as she sings about her childhood and her struggles with wanting to stay alive. She sings about an encounter with a fan, “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit / Well, she told me / She said, ‘Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die / ‘Cause we need you,’ and honestly, I think that she lied.” The song is like a diary in that it is honest and reads like a train of thought. Her admissions of negative self-worth and suicidal thoughts speak to a side of humanity too little mentioned in the edited world of pop stars.
Overall, Manic is an honest portrait of the scattered and hurting but also powerful and proud girl behind the name Halsey. While the tracks on Manic can feel somewhat disconnected, the album is united by Halsey’s urge to find truth in her writing and connect with a side of herself that usually remains hidden. The album has produced some of Halsey’s greatest feats of songwriting yet, her simple ballads reflecting the lyrical and vocal talent rarely seen since her first EP, Room 93. Manic is a journey into Halsey’s mind, and shows why fans have come to love both Halsey and now Ashley, too.
Listen to Manic: