Early on Halsey’s excellent new album, Manic, she samples a bit of movie dialogue: “I’m just a fucked-up girl looking for my own piece of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” It’s from the filmEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, spoken by the manic, pixie dream-girl heroine Clementine. But she definitely speaks for Halsey. And as you’ve probably guessed, the singer doesn’t even come close to finding peace of mind in these songs. Still, she knows how to make it a thrilling quest. Manic is Halsey’s raw autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young mess, craving her share of love and tenderness in a hostile world. Yet Halsey’s Ashley Frangipane is a mess who’s a hungrily ambitious artist seeing herself as a mirror for her entire generation.
And she curates one mean mixtape. As she told Rolling Stone last summer, Manic is “hip-hop, rock, country, fucking everything.” Who else but Halsey would get stellar guest shots from Alanis Morissette and Suga from BTS on the same album? Manic is her first album since Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, her 2017 Romeo and Juliet trip, set in a Shakespearean dystopia. But Manic is about the here-and-now real world and her fight for a place in it as a young woman.
As she confesses in “Still Learning,” “I should be living the dream/But I go home and I got no self-esteem.” She gets introspective, exploring everything from Lilith Fair folk guitar to South Korean rap. Morissette definitely sounds like a kindred spirit, letting loose some Cher-like wails straight from the City of Angels soundtrack while Halsey purrs, “Your pussy is a wonderland.”
She fantasizes about getting revenge for her emotional wounds in “Killing Boys” and “I Hate Everybody.” In “929” she gives a rundown of her twentysomething angst: loneliness, anxiety, real estate purchases, hair loss, falling in love with drug addicts, nicotine withdrawal, stressing over responsibility to her teen fans. As she quips, “I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met/But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed.” Even as she pays the bills for her family, she feels abandoned, admitting, “I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me.”
The album’s moment of bliss is the fabulously spacey country-rock romance “Finally/Beautiful Stranger.” It sounds like her A Star Is Born cameo might have fired her up to do her own “Shallow.” But it’s reluctantly hopeful, as Halsey sizes up a new flame — “You got hips like Jagger and two left feet”—and surrenders to the vertigo of letting go and getting her expectations up yet again. It’s a rare glimmer of optimism on an album full of pain. But Halsey makes it feel as true as every other moment on Manic.