The rising pop star's sophomore album goes for experimental radio hits that are full of anhedonic drama. It's ambitious and nuanced, though calculating in ways that dull its impact.
Halsey’s sophomore album hopeless fountain kingdom comes with a backstory to rival an ARG. There were actual fountains and actual newspapers sent to actual doorsteps, but in 2017 this is the status quo. Tove Lo’s debut as the voice of Max Martin’s Wolf Cousins writing collective was presented as a four-part concept album about emotional turmoil. Beyoncé’s last two albums are bona fide franchises. Artists from The Fame-era Lady Gaga to suddenly-woke Katy Perry conduct album campaigns about how their music truly means something. It’s easy to see why: Streaming is a hopeless penny fountain, radio is a hopeless playlist kingdom, so one scrounges any extramusical interest one can. And most musicians prefer to think they’re making art, not content—especially with an audience that demands increasing creative control from artists and an industry that doesn’t keep up.
This is certainly less outwardly exploitative than the antiquated pop model of finding a teen, then corrupting their fictionalized innocent image for public ogling. Halsey’s bid at true meaning on hopeless fountain kingdom is to simply prove she’s “more than capable of writing radio music,” as she told Rolling Stone. The concept is ambitious, but the product ticks all the boxes: staid piano ballad (“Sorry”), In the Zone nostalgia (“Walls Could Talk”), R&B dilettantism (“Don’t Play,” Quavo-assisted “Lie”), recreations of proven hits (“Now or Never”). Of course, ever since she said she was raised on Biggie and Nirvana while getting high on kind and legal bud on Badland’s “New Americana,” Halsey has been accused of inauthenticity. Everything from her hairstyle to her racial and sexual identity has been seized upon as clues to debunk the enterprise. The New York Times called her “a millennial built in a lab.” Grantland: “Halsey’s life can be reduced to a perfect millennial construct.” Halsey lamented to Billboard the “conspiracy theorists who think [she] was crafted in a boardroom.” However, who but an actual Tumblr teen would imagine herself on a Rider-Waite card or dream up a post-teenage apocalypse where the only scarcity is connection?
“100 Letters” sets the scene: dingy floors, negs, and would-be love notes destroyed in the wash. The production is fittingly dirgelike with new age percussion loops and far away decaying guitar samples, like an Enigma track left overnight in a dive-bar bathroom. “Alone,” plush with brass and cellos, also sounds ‘90s: like a track off Everything But the Girl’s Temperamental if someone were actively having a panic attack over it. The lyrics cut through parties and drinks and hangers-on as Halsey’s vocal climbs the scale, increasingly agitated, up to the last, worst anxiety: “I know you’re dying to meet me, but I can just tell you this/Baby as soon as you meet me, you’ll wish that you never did.” “Eyes Closed” portrays that timeless gambit of getting over someone by getting under someone else, as well as the timely gambit of getting into co-writer The Weeknd’s production drears, withering melodies, and joyless sex. But while the backing vocals sound like Tesfaye, he’d never write something so abandoned as “he’ll never stay—they never do.”
The album’s not entirely anhedonic. The heart-thud pace and breathless quotables in “Heaven in Hiding” suggest genuine lust—that lurid diary entry with 25 blank pages on either side. Nor, despite the sheer quantity of shitty dudes here, is it just men who fail to connect. “Strangers” shimmers and yearns like a recent Tegan and Sara cut, with Heartthrob co-writer Greg Kurstin and with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui as duettist. Jauregui, like Halsey, is bisexual, and “Strangers” is Halsey’s stated attempt to get a love song between two women onto pop radio. Not coincidentally, it contains the album’s most nuanced lyrics, the coupling that’s most promising yet most out of reach.
On an album full of radio experiments, some succeed—“100 Letters,” “Walls Could Talk” and “Alone” demonstrate the perennially fertile sound of alt-pop—and some inevitably fail. The two R&B tracks are a swagger void. “Devil in Me” is hopeless fountain kingdom’s requisite Sia track, and like so many others, Halsey makes it sound like anything but. More damningly, style never quite matches substance. That could be the young creative’s “taste gap”; Halsey is just 22. Or it could be the market. Is lead single “Now or Never,” as the story goes, “one part in the center of a long narrative that tells the story of two people in love despite the forces trying to keep them apart”? Or is it just writer Starrah commissioned to make another, poppier “Needed Me”—less prickly, less urban, less precise with the vocals? To some, it might not matter. Others might await a kingdom built on more than just airplay.