Halsey Represents a Bold “New Americana” of Pop Music with Badlands

“If you wanna break these walls down, you’re gonna get bruised,” croons Halsey on the opening track of her debut LP, Badlands.  Seductively delivered, it’s both an invitation and a warning as to what the rest of the album holds in store: a dreamy, moody electro-pop haze where the artist has translated her private thoughts and state of mind into thoughtful, relatable lyrics and catchy melodies.  Badlands (released August 28) is nothing less than a journey into not only the world of this twenty-year old singer-songwriter.  It’s also arguably insight into the current state of many members of today’s generation as they grow up, fall in love, discover their identities, and rebel against their preconceived boundaries.  Halsey (born Ashley Frangipane), with her brightly-colored hair, openness about her “tri-bi” identity—bisexual, biracial, bipolar—and charismatic, husky vocal presence, is the perfect tour guide.

Upon the first few listens to Badlands, several tracks immediately stand out—in fact, the first half of the album is absolutely stellar, with most of the negligible filler relegated towards the end of the record (of course, since I decided to review the deluxe version of the album, a larger amount of extra, less memorable tracks is likely).  Album opener “Castle,” “Hold Me Down,” and “New Americana,” “Drive,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Colors” are all incredibly strong songs with plenty of introspective lyrics that tackle themes such as mental health, the nature of celebrity, and a shifting, unclear relationship with a lover.

“New Americana” is Halsey’s (unintentional) answer to Lorde’s “Royals” (to whom she has been compared by such publications as the New York Times), which has and will likely continue to be pointed out by everyone who is familiar with both artists.  With amped-up background vocals that give the impression of a crowd chanting the chorus as one unit, Halsey substitutes Lorde’s cool dismissal of glamour and accessories of the upper-class for defiance. “Drive,” the album’s first real ballad, conjures up the feeling of the “open road” both lyrically and melodically; as the artist sings wistfully about how “California never felt like home,” you wonder how she’s managed to convey a monotonous feeling without creating an utterly monotonous song.

While world-conquering pop star Taylor Swift tackled the rainbow spectrum of relationships on the eponymous track of her album Red, in the standout track “Colors,” Halsey uses a more limited palette to greater effect.  In this earworm-y tune, she describes the pain of a dissolving romance due to what seems to be the unaddressed depression and drug use of her partner and its effect on her: “Everything is grey / His hair, his smoke, his dreams / And now he’s so devoid of color / He don’t know what it means.” “Hold Me Down” is a similar highlight of the album, with a dizzying, trip-hop beat that will undoubtedly get stuck in your head.

On the second half of the album, several of the songs start to blur together—which is not entirely unpleasant, but demonstrates that most of the best material has already been spent. Still, though, there are some bright spots to be found here.  “Haunting” is an appropriately named one as Halsey struggles with an ex-lover she can’t seem to let go of: “’Cause I’ve done some things that I can’t speak / And I’ve tried to wash you away but you just won’t leave.” The way her voice rises and almost breaks during this line is wonderfully emotive and vulnerable and really sells the urgency of the track.  The vocal trick is repeated in the chorus of “Control” to slightly lesser effect, making a song that wouldn’t otherwise be musically notable more memorable: “And all the kids cried out, “Please stop, you’re scaring me”/ I can’t help this awful energy / Goddamn right, you should be scared of me/ Who is in control?” On another positive note, “Coming Down” is a welcome change of tempo and timbre for the album as a whole.  A tender, largely-acoustic ode to having found “religion” through emotional and physical intimacy with a lover, “Coming Down” could in the soundtrack for a new teen romance movie.

On the other hand, tracks like “Colors, Pt. II,” which is an unnecessary outro to the preceding highlight “Colors,” as well as “I Walk the Line”, “Strange Love”, and “Young God” all dissolve into the overall industrial ambiance of the album, providing pleasant and catchy background music rather than demanding the foreground and the forefront of the listener’s attention.  This is not to say that these later songs lack the same honest, raw lyrics as the songs earlier on the album. To the contrary, lyrics like “Are you deranged like me? / Are you strange like me? / Lighting matches just to swallow up the flame like me? / Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me? / Pointing fingers cause you’ll never take the blame like me?” (“Gasoline”) are quite effective; given Halsey’s openness with her bipolar disorder, it’s not surprising that she can describe aspects of mental illness in a truly relatable and open way.

While I don’t necessarily listen to enough music to make this declaration, I’m calling it anyway: Halsey’s Badlands is the best pop album of 2015.  (Yes—I am aware it’s only August.) Megan Trainor’s Title and Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION, while perfectly fun, pale in comparison to the introspection and atmosphere of Badlands. I can only hope that Halsey one day achieves the attention given to Taylor, Gaga or Katy, because with her talent beyond her years, as she surely deserves it.

 

Featured image courtesy of Redeye.


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