‘hopeless fountain kingdom’, the sophomore album from Halsey, opens with the American songstress reciting the prologue of Romeo and Juliet before she dives into her own modern-day story of star-crossed lovers. This begins with ‘100 Letters’, a track in which she shakes off a past lover, assuring us “I don’t let him touch me anymore.” It’s a decent opener that feels familiar, but follow-up track ‘Eyes Closed’ deviates from the usual. The melody for this song was crafted by The Weeknd and though he doesn’t sing a word on the track, his presence can be felt throughout.
‘Devil In Me’, written by Sia, is another moment on the album where Halsey feels more like an impersonator than her own thing, but these are only two moments on the record and for the most part, the Halsey we fell in love with on Badlands is very much present.
That Halsey was the epitome of the modern day, social media “cool girl.” Most young female artists are trying to speak to and for a specific group, but Halsey may be the most genuine. First gaining a following through the internet, Tumblr specifically, Halsey embodies so much of this new generation of young women who are desperately trying to have their voices heard. The 22-year-old is opinionated online and very vocal about social issues such as destigmatizing mental health and politics (she was an outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter). She isn’t afraid to talk about her mental illness (bipolar) or her sexuality (bisexual) and will call out her own fans on Twitter if she has a problem with what they’re saying. She’s brave and brash and beautiful, and all about female sexual empowerment.
‘Heaven In Hiding’ is a great example of this and one of the stand-out tracks of the record (it’s also Halsey’s favourite track). The music scene at the moment is, perhaps, over saturated with overtly sexual songs delivered by females in scantily clad attire, and everyone has their own opinion on whether these female artists are truly empowered or being exploited by those higher up in the industry. When it comes to Halsey and a track like ‘Heaven In Hiding’, I don’t think anyone can question that Halsey is empowering herself rather than having her sexuality exploited. This track has the songstress flipping “the script” in a sexual encounter, with Halsey confidently taking the lead (“And you thought that you were the boss tonight / but I can put up one good fight”) as she teases the subject. Later, on the current single ‘Strangers’, Halsey collaborates with Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony to sing about the relationship between two women. We’re well used to hearing women sing about getting with other women, but it’s usually experimental and purely sexual (female pop singers out there I am looking at you, you know who you are!). It’s refreshing to hear two openly bisexual women sing about a female/female relationship with real depth, and on a track that is destined to be a hit.
The other collaborations on the album include one with Quavo (‘Lie’) and another with Cashmere Cat (‘Hopeless’). Listening to ‘Lie’ for the first few times, I thought it was trying too hard to be an anthem and missing the mark. After watching Halsey perform it live however, I think this track does have the potential to be grand and atmospheric. For me, the addition of Quavo on the studio track is a hindrance rather than a help and the song has a far bigger impact with Halsey alone. Indeed, most of the strongest tracks on the album are those that allow Halsey to be Halsey, and are free from heavy outside interference. Whether it was pressure from the label to include some big names or the singers own self-doubt, the singer is at her best when the track has that classic, signature Halsey sound.
One of the most common themes on the record is, interestingly, the singer’s self-doubt, especially when it comes to relationships. This is most poignant on ‘Sorry’, the only ballad on the album and one of the records strongest offerings. The mellow moment has Halsey apologising to her “unknown lover.” It’s the most vulnerable moment on the album with emotional lyrics like, “Sorry that I can’t believe, that anybody ever really starts to fall in love with me.” The song really shows off her stunning vocals with the only accompaniment being sparse piano chords.
On ‘Bad Love’, she self-assesses herself to be, well, ‘bad at love.’ But as outsiders, the string of lovers she mentions seem like they could well be the problem rather than Halsey herself. It’s also another moment on the record where we see Halsey’s staunch feminism causing issues for her in relationships. One male ex-lover is “calling [her] a bitch again” due to her honesty / outspokenness, while another is bothered by her quest to pursue music, instead wanting her “in the kitchen with a dinner plate.” She delivers the lines in such a way that you get the feeling she’s rolling her eyes rather than genuinely bothered by what these guys thought of her, and you just know that her fans are rolling their eyes right along with her.
‘Alone’ explores the 22-year-old’s sense of isolation amidst this new found fame. She feels “alone in [her] mind” despite the millions of people coming to see her. In the chorus, she seems to address her fans, singing, “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.” However, this is contrasted on ‘Don’t Play’ where she radiates confidence and empowerment. “Can’t fuck with my vibes, double cuppin’ in my ride, motherfucker don’t play with me” she sings over an infectious beat as she sings about making her own money, “drinks on me.”
And this is really what makes a Halsey album so great – the contrast, the colours, the complicated nature of it all. Yes, Halsey is a badass feminist icon, but she also has moments of doubt, depression and despair, and that’s what makes her truly empowering. Because the real “cool girl” has vulnerabilities and insecurities too, and by Halsey revealing hers to us it allows us to embrace our own and realize that we can feel confident and empowered in spite of them. Overall, ‘hopeless fountain kingdom’ is a good, well-rounded album and should succeed in pleasing old fans as well as drawing in some new ones.