Halsey just released her third studio album, “Manic,” and just as the name suggests, it is quite manic. The singer claims that the album was written from the perspective of her true self, Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, for her artistic persona, Halsey, and details her personal experience with mania and the emotions that accompany it. And those claims seem to be completely accurate. No two songs are the same and yet each works nearly perfectly with the others, progressing along a journey of self-discovery and twitching with the anxiety of self-reflection.
Most people will probably recognize “Without Me,” Halsey’s biggest hit to date. The track was not actually meant to be the start to an album though. It was supposed to be a stand-alone single, having been released all the way back in late 2018 and arriving at its commercial peak as the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 over a year ago. However, because of its massive success and the relatively low critical reception of “Nightmare” (which was supposed to be the lead single before Halsey decided she no longer felt mania was as angry as the track implied it was and scrapped it), “Without Me” was inserted into the track list. But while it is probably the most radio-friendly of the songs in the collection, it is not even close to my favorite. The song is basically a chronicling of Halsey’s breakup with rapper G-Eazy and I don’t believe that this album is about a breakup, despite what many fans theorize. It is an album about Ashley. Everything inside of Ashley that makes her herself, not what a man makes her.
Fitting to this theme, the opening track is actually titled “Ashley.” It is a gritty, synth-pop-inspired song that tells the story of Halsey’s desire to break free from the image placed upon her by the music industry and patriarchy. Sparkling with sound and even experimenting with a lack thereof, “Ashley” is a wonderful introduction to the album, blending Halsey’s former musical style with the uniqueness of this latest record. By mixing these sounds and switching everything up each album, she shows her audience that she too is constantly changing as a human. And “Ashley” shows us that Ashley is the one connecting all of the albums, not Halsey. As the quote from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” that is recited at the end of the song states, Ashley is “just a f–cked up girl who’s looking for [her] own peace of mind. Don’t assign [her] yours.”
From there we travel to a completely different song, immediately delivering the manic nature of “Manic.” The song “clementine” is a low-production piano ballad that strongly contrasts with “Ashley.” And it doesn’t stop there. After that we have the album’s second single, “Graveyard,” and then the startling country track “You should be sad.” One of the most danceable songs in the collection, “You should be sad” finds Halsey exploring a side of herself we have never seen before: a Kacey Musgraves-esque pop-western side. It’s a powerful anthem that it is sure to have even the staunchest country music critics up on their feet.
However, not every song on the album is quite so dancey. Many of the tracks, such as the headbanging “3am,” LGBTQ+ celebrating “Alanis’ Interlude” (featuring the iconic Alanis Morissette), “Jennifer’s Body”-sampling “killing boys” and more are a little too brash or switch up too quickly to really pick up the attention of the general public. But this doesn’t make them bad. In fact, the distracted, manic nature of “Forever … (is a long time)” is one of its greatest strengths. The track switches up with an instrumental section about halfway through, suddenly stopping and turning into a completely different sound in “Dominic’s Interlude,” even as the same lyric, “Talk to your man. Tell him he’s got bad news coming,” repeats over and over. The song then transitions seamlessly into “I HATE EVERYBODY,” a full 180 from the song just before. It is absolutely manic.
Other songs, such as “Finally // beautiful stranger” and “Still Learning” demonstrate the softer parts of Halsey. Whether it is her tendency to romanticize fabricated relationships with strangers she just met or her admission that no matter how much she loves her fans, friends and family, she still has trouble loving herself, these more delicate tracks truly demonstrate how deep into Ashley Halsey is going with “Manic.” Plus they’re just insanely gorgeous.
The treasure of the album, however, lies in the track “More.” Nestled toward the end after SUGA of BTS’s gorgeous Korean rap on “SUGA’s Interlude,” “More” touches on a subject that Halsey has never mentioned to the public: her desire and struggles to become a mother. The tragic lyrics, “A couple years of waiting rooms,” “Wooden floors and little feet” and “A little screen, a photograph” make the subject quite clear, while “They told me it’s useless, there’s no hope in store” and “Wonder will we ever meet?” let us in on the unfortunate outcome. However, the Grammy-nominated artist shows us that she will not give up on her dream, quietly crooning, “And when you decide it’s your time to arrive, I’ve loved you for all of my life.” This absolute gem of a song is both lyrically and sonically exceptional and perfectly illustrates to listeners that this is not a breakup album, it is an Ashley album.
Rounding out this Ashley album is the final track, “929,” in which Halsey, in a speaking voice, explains that she was born at 9:29 a.m. on Sept. 29; she then goes into a long list of important moments in her life that includes, but is not limited to, buying a house, losing a lover to drugs, days spent wishing her father would call her and discovering she was never really in love. Barely stopping for a chorus, the song is a flawless demonstration of Halsey’s impeccable poetry-writing skills that have been on display throughout the entire record. And just before quietly ending, a speaking Halsey comes back on to admit that she saw her birth certificate and discovered that she was actually born at 9:26 a.m., causing her to somberly giggle and call herself “a f—ing liar.” It is wildly, chaotically and authentically Ashley. And it is 100% manic. A beautiful description of a beautiful album.