Photo Credit: Aidan Cullen
In less than five years Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, better known as Halsey, has gone from just another starry-eyed young music hobbyist uploading homemade videos to YouTube to one of the most revered and influential artists of the twenty-first century thus far. Audiences have responded not only to her subtle yet undeniably powerful synth-driven songs but also to the unflinching honesty in both her lyrics as well as every aspect of her public persona. Her third full-length release, Manic, only looks to both solidify and intensify the progress she’s made so far.
The characteristically personal nature of her work becomes continually apparent from just the title of Manic’s opening cut, “Ashley”, as using her given name in this manner reflects both the vulnerability and timidness illustrated in the verse as well as the apparent liberation expressed through the chorus, which she belts out. Second up is “clementine”, another slower (though very good) song, suggesting that Halsey recognizes that she doesn’t have to set off musical fireworks to get attention.
Ironically, it’s with a song called “Graveyard” that the album’s tempo picks up, and here the combination of echo-y synths and acoustic guitar arpeggiation makes it one of the Manic’s best tracks. Her most recent single “You should be sad” has almost the feel and attitude of a modern country song, even down to its theme. It portrays a there’s-the-door directive to a former lover (“No, you’re not half the man you think you are // And you can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, drugs and cars”). Halsey gets even closer to a country-rock sound with the twangy “Finally // beautiful stranger”, which is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s classic Nashville Skyline album or perhaps more concisely Beck’s 2002 Sea Change, another release by a synth-heavy single-name artist who didn’t wait long to surprise people with their diversity or promise of career longevity.
One recurring theme of Manic is that of the compulsive need of companionship for its own sake which will outweigh selectiveness, as expressed quite candidly on the lyrics of “clementine” (“I don’t need anyone // I just need everyone and then some!”) and “I HATE EVERYBODY” (“Just hate everybody // So why can’t I go home without somebody?”). Ironically, Manic is very much a collaborative effort: every track lists, in addition to Halsey, as many as seven co-writers, and a small army of producers and engineers that were also involved (Alanis Morissette, Dominic Fike, and Suga from BTS contribute guest vocals as well). But Manic never becomes a too-many-cooks situation, as everyone is clearly following the same recipe, which is undeniably Halsey’s own. Plus, the nature of her lyrics and message are ultimately what comes through no matter how many layers cover the music or production.
The tight, uptempo “Still Learning” still comes off as quite personal but presents one of the record’s more universal themes (“And I still love you // But I’m still learning to love myself”). By contrast, Manic ends the way it begins, with a title (“929”) that depicts something quite specific to Halsey (it’s both the date she was born and the time she [thought] she was born), and the track is almost presented as a stream-of-consciousness (well, one in which words rhyme) reflecting notions of her anxieties which have both nothing and everything to do with fame, possibly at the same time (“I remember the names of every single kid [fan] I’ve met // But forget half the people I’ve gotten in bed”).
Cynics might choose to unfairly come down on Halsey, asking what she could possibly have to “complain” about after achieving so much in a relatively short amount of time at such a young age. But it’s this stark frankness that put Halsey on the map and what’s likely to keep her there. Success is not always a “cure” for complex personal problems but if nothing else it should give an artist a platform so that more people will be allowed to directly relate. It’s fitting that Halsey took her stage name from a New York City subway station, since Manic promises to be just one stop in what will no doubt continue to be a long and highly productive career ride.