“Standing now, in a mirror that I built myself” are the lyrics that open Halsey’s new album, “Manic.” They are a fitting introduction into the songwriter’s third album, which acts as an introduction to the woman behind the star and persona that is Halsey: Ashley Frangipane.
The lyrics are on the track entitled “Ashley,” which serves multiple purposes. It is an introduction to and explanation of the concept for this album. On “Manic,” Halsey gets more personal than she ever has before. She takes fans on a journey through her mind and her experiences with mania as a result of her bipolar disorder. The album is also meant to be a contrast to the public perception of mania and manic behavior.
The track is a discourse on the struggle and pain she puts herself through to create music. It is an early warning that, because of these pains, she can’t be sure how many albums she has left in her.
While Halsey has become a pop artist, “Manic” puts this label at odds with her body of work. “Ashley” is as close to the traditional sound one would expect from a Halsey song that the album gives you. “Manic” is a sonically diverse album, experimenting with new sounds from track to track. It is genre-less, putting a straight-forward pop track like “Graveyard” right next to an alternative-country barn burner like “You Should Be Sad” and following that with the cinematic “Forever … (Is a Long Time).”
“Manic” sounds nothing like “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom,” and even less like “Badlands” that came before it. It cements Halsey as an artist who reinvents her sonic palette with each project.
Where her previous projects had a central sound that defined them, “Manic” is defined by how far it will go to run away from an easy definition. The vision board for the project would include pictures of Shania Twain, Fiona Apple, The Beach Boys, The Wonder Years and shots from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Jennifer’s Body” — films which are both sampled on the album.
The structure of the album is meant to keep the listener from settling into one space for very long. A quick reordering of the tracklist may create a more easy listening experience. But (unlike most albums where this would enhance your perception of the album) doing so would completely destroy the impact of it. The fleeting nature is the conceit.
The album has three features, each serving as representations of influential relationships in Halsey’s life. The first is Dominic Fike, who acts as a brotherly energy on a ‘60s rock inspired interlude warning Halsey to leave her partner. Alanis Morissette represents the formative female relationships that allowed Halsey to feel empowered sexually and professionally. The final feature is SUGA from K-pop supergroup BTS. His interlude is an examination of her relationship with music and questioning the dedication to the art.
Though these tracks are simple interludes, they are so well crafted and written that you wish they were fleshed out into full songs. This is felt most in “Dominic’s Interlude,” which is infectious, but criminally short — it clocks in at just over a minute long. “Alanis’ Interlude” is a baffling sonic mix — part rap, part ‘90s alt rock, part punk pop — but its confusion is addicting.
As much as the sonic nature of this album imparts the feeling of mania on the listener, the lyrics are where the story of the album is fully sketched. Halsey has had a way with words since her debut album, but “Manic” pushes her poetry to new heights.
“Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” and “Badlands” hid behind extended metaphors of Shakespearean drama and dystopian wastelands to permit the sharing of raw and honest emotions. The escapism created the window for relating to those outside of yourself.
On “Manic,” Halsey cuts herself open to show her guts. It’s a risky choice at a time when she is at the height of her fame, and her daily life is the least relatable it has been in her career so far. But on this album, it is her own specificity that cuts deepest.
The best example is probably the track “Still Learning.” One of the most pop-leaning tracks on the album, it opens with the lines, “I should be living the dream / But I’m livin’ with a security team.” It’s a fake out, leading you to believe that this will be just another song from a popstar about how being famous is really hard. But Halsey almost instantly turns her pen to deeper, more introspective topics: “I should be living the dream / But I go home and I got no self-esteem.”
The album briefly touches on her high profile break up with rapper G-Eazy on tracks like “Without Me” and “You Should Be Sad.” Largely though, Halsey focuses on her other painful experiences and seeks to find a sense of catharsis in getting all of it out into the world.
Two of the most moving tracks lyrically come towards the end of the album. “More” first presents itself as a simple love song. When you look deeper into the lyrics, it reveals itself to be a song about Halsey’s reproductive struggles. It is an aching track but one of the most impressive on the album.
The closing track, “929,” is a stream of consciousness explanation of the whole album. There is no structure to the song, just a confessional rant illuminating everything that hasn’t been addressed on the album so far. It is as honest as Halsey could get. While it is self-deprecating in a remarkably withering way, it is not meant as a negative review of her current position. It is an acknowledgement that she has a lot to figure out, but she has managed to make space for herself in recent years.
Despite its drip, drip, drip release strategy, “Manic” is best consumed as a full body of work with a strong artistic vision. It is meant to take you on a journey, and without that context, many songs lack depth, and some really don’t make sense at all. It is an emotionally draining piece, but it holds a sense of unfounded optimism that manages to breakthrough the pain and trauma. It is one of the first great albums of the new decade.