Halsey explores the human condition in her most visceral album to date, ‘Manic’ [Review]
Upon streaming “Ashley,” the biological, self-titled opening number of Manic, one gets the feeling that they should sit down. It’s by Halsey‘s design that “Ashley,” and by extension, Manic, elicit this reaction. The response is a natural byproduct of the vocalist’s visceral approach to self-expression: It’s altogether contrived and reflexive, a complex sonic paradox. This aspect is only a fraction of the contentious character of Manic, which offers the rawest look at Halsey’s inner life to date.
“Ashley” represents what seems to be an inevitable collision: Ashley Frangipane, the woman behind the Halsey anagram and the vocalist’s performative persona. Both identities mesh with unprecedented force on Manic. The LP is hardly pop’s first introduction to a confessional concept album, yet Halsey’s approach to the format is distinctly fresh and inventive. She uses her own name as the title of the LP’s introductory cut in what is a full-frontal claim of the manifold emotions and experiences that she will delineate across Manic’s 16 inclusions. They are hers and hers alone, and yet, they’re not. Halsey uses film, specifically, 2004’s Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to shape and express the sentiments of “Ashley,” and in doing so, aligns herself with the production’s female protagonist, Kate Winslet’s simultaneously frenetic and lucid portrayal of Clementine.
An excerpt from the film’s script provides the finale to “Ashley”: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. I’m just a fucked up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
This identification magnifies with Manic’s next cut, “clementine.”
If “Ashley” was the moment of Ashley and Halsey intersection, then “clementine” is the result of their union. Lines are blurred. It’s difficult to discern just who is using music as the medium to speak on this track, and there’s the sense that it’s all three entities at once.
The introspective melancholy that characterizes “Ashley” and “clementine” is a cohesive thread that ties together each of Manic’s inclusions, from the first track to the last. Admittedly, the aching confession that occupies a large part of Manic is more glaring in its presence on some songs than on others. “Finally // beautiful stranger” is an example: “I know that beautiful strangers only come along to do me wrong,” Halsey sings. However, neither “Finally // beautiful stranger” nor Manic is wholly anchored in despondence. Case in point, the vocalist’s ending admission, “But I think it’s finally finally finally finally finally safe / for me to fall.”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a filmic accessory to Manic that acts as a vessel to help Halsey lay the emotive foundation of the songstress’ third LP. Its influence is an integral part of the album’s beginning and Halsey’s definition of the concept album’s concept, but it need not carry through to color the whole production. After “clementine,” Halsey sheds the film, allowing the sonic reigns to rest firmly in her own hands, without the aid of allusion. She’s made her statement; by now, listeners understand her position and where this is going. She’ll take it from here.
Sadness lit by careful, tempered optimism is a lyrical motif of Manic that seems to extend beyond words to the album artwork, which pictures Halsey with a glimmering, teal-hued black eye. The heart of the symbolism, it appears, is not so much in the makeup-provided black eye, but in its sparkle. It’s an arresting visual embodiment of resilience, and of Manic’s lyrical and artistic synchronicity. In all, it’s possible to read the flecks of glitter that add dynamic to the look as a physical extension of the slight, cautious sanguinity that sporadically runs through Manic in hopeful punctuation.
The title of Halsey’s project concords with its form. Manic makes frenzied switches between genres and sonic styles. On “You should be sad,” streamers see Halsey tint pop with country; on “clementine,” Halsey undergirds her fervent, shouted declarations with placid piano chords. On celebrated Manic staple, “Without Me,” Halsey pursues a downtempo pop route, and further disrupts the notion of cohesion on the guitar-aided “Finally // beautiful stranger,” the most singer-songwriter-centric selection on the album. These are just a few of the inclusions that evidence Manic’s structure to be, well, manic. It leaps from one musical aesthetic to the next, in a decisive frenzy.
Manic is an all encompassing trial of self that does not end with a neat little resolution. But if anyone expected one come Manic’s 16th track, “929,” it’s safe to say the album’s intoxicating emotional crests and valleys were somewhat lost upon the listener.
A galvanizing concept album oriented around personal growth and regression, despair, blockades–some of which, Halsey puts forth, are of our own creation–and the resolve to move ever forward, scars in tow, Manic poignantly and pointedly explores the human condition. Halsey’s undertaking with Manic and its ultimate ethos could distilled in a single inquisitive lyric from “929”: “Well, who am I? / I’m almost 25.” We still aren’t quite sure—and evidently, neither is she. But if she told us, the confession would leave Manic devoid of its relentless depth. What’s steady through the inexorable emotional turbulence is the inquiry itself; it alone moves the music forward.