Review: Halsey Expands Her Sound on ‘hopeless fountain kingdom’

Review: Halsey Expands Her Sound on ‘hopeless fountain kingdom’

The rising star's sophomore album showcases her ambition and versatility.

The rising star's sophomore album showcases her ambition and versatility.

Text: Jake Viswanath

Halsey is undoubtedly one of the more intriguing characters in pop, today. Ashley Frangipane (her birth name) started off as a simple aspiring musician and noted One Direction superfan posting covers online. In the blink of an eye, she was Halsey, one of the most omnipresent faces of the Tumblr generation with ever-ambitious concepts and aesthetics behind her music. Her looks are the evolving teen dream, still switching today between pixie cuts and long electric blue locks, glam pantsuits, and baggy ensembles. And digging deep into her past helps one see how layered she is as a person: biracial, bisexual, and bipolar, with enough personal tragedies (a miscarriage, family issues, the requisite love problems) to fuel an entire discography.

Her debut album Badlands established the young singer with a soundscape so definite and self-assured, soft and brooding indie-pop inspired by the likes of Lorde, that it left fans and critics alike asking: where does she go next? Turns out, the answer is everywhere.

On her sophomore record, oddly titled hopeless fountain kingdom, Halsey draws from her numerous musical inspirations and creates a collection that spans multiple genres. The first two singles, “Now Or Never” and “Eyes Closed,” see her go in full-on Rihanna mode a la “Needed Me,” with wavy synths and hard-hitting bass, while “Bad At Love” and “Don’t Play” turns the hip-hop influence up a notch. Album opener “100 Letters” sees her incorporate Middle Eastern strings and drums into her brand of pop, while “Lie” takes those elements and becomes one of her most bizarre offerings, with dramatic pleads and NSFW lyrics about messy head.

“Alone” is a surprising attempt at disco-funk that allows Halsey’s voice to shine, while “Walls Could Talk” takes notes from early-2000s Britney and Destiny’s Child, creating a Max Martin-esque stomper with exquisite strings and an effortless melody. The only way this could have been improved if this were extended (it doesn’t even reach two minutes) and given a defining key change—like the iconic classics. But its “Strangers” that shines the most, not only for its significance as a duet between two bisexual women (Fifth Harmony member Lauren Jauregui) that uses all pronouns, but for its sound: an '80s pop stunner with those punching electro beats and Ellie Goulding-like twinkles.

Halsey undeniably wears her influences on her sleeve, but it’s not completely derivative. She reconstructs these sounds to fit the downbeat-pop soundscape she created on Badlands and puts down her signature touches: menacing vocoders, muddled synths, consistent mid-tempos, and a penchant for uber-honest lyricism. It’s what keeps the album somewhat cohesive sonically, but it loses track conceptually.

The Romeo and Juliet narrative that she delivers with ease online and in her video for “Now Or Never,” through her reimagined characters Luna and Solis, is vague on record. She borrows the play's prologue for her own intro, introduces Jauregui as the Rosaline to her Luna, and continues to sing about the conundrum of loving someone who cannot be with you as always, but the story is more clear visually than sonically. And the traces that do lie within are overshadowed by the more dynamic productions and lyrics that make your head turn, for better or worse.

Her ambitious concepts and visual achievements are admirable, and the music is getting better as she goes, but the connection between them leaves more to be desired for the final product. Where hopeless fountain kingdom is successful is in its versatility, showing that Halsey isn’t the one-trick pony found on Badlands and establishing the potential for further growth sonically. It leaves us asking the same question: where does she go next?

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