What’s an It-girl who missed her moment? That’s the question confronting Halsey, who emerges from the prerequisite haze of tightly orchestrated internet hype to deliver her debut LP, Badlands. A human personification of the most carefully cultivated Tumblr blog of 2012, Halsey’s particular brand of art pop and big, empty beats now, unfortunately, seems awkwardly dated. In autumn 2015’s cold light of day the album’s synthy production appears as the shimmering leftovers of reigning alt-queens Lana Del Rey, Lorde and Sky Ferreira.
The album does have some good songs. ‘Colors’ offers a lovely, sad, romantic vision of love and loss, whilst ‘Haunting’s melody is catchy and the closest thing the album comes to feeling fresh. ‘Drive’ is also a nice tune, even if it comes across as a Broods knock-off.
So Halsey is many things. Underconfident is not however one of them. Throughout Badlands she does seem preternaturally confident in both delivery and attitude (her vocal on Roman Delivery and the album’s lone fantastic song, ‘Ghost’, show glimpses of a star) yet this also manifests as self absorption. As any self respecting millennial will argue, this is not in itself a criticism – many of her contemporaries tackles their narcissistic tendencies with insight and prescience – but Halsey kind of just breeze’s past it. It is not to be examined and is therefore rendered uninteresting. A surprising amount of the album is devoted to imagining what other people think about her – fans, lovers, adoring hangers on. It makes her hard to warm to – the kiss of death for any budding pop star. “I’m heading straight for the Castle, they want to make me their Queen” is the album’s first hook, whilst on Young Gods “You know the two of us are just young gods, And we’ll be flying through the streets with the people underneath.” So good for her I guess, but it doesn’t make for particularly engaging song writing.
She does have a knack for conjuring images and mood, but in doing so she leans far too heavily on cultural signifiers which work to murky the interesting aspects of her songwriting. She buries personal revelations beneath icons and symbols that are transparent attempts to grab at cool points. There’s an element of calculated curation at work here that is manipulative, somewhat embarrassing, and ultimately self destructive. The album’s second single, New Americana, is a particular low point on this front. Its reheated, anthemic production and mind numbing chorus “We are the New Americana, high on legal marijuana, raised on Biggie and Nirvana” is moving in the sense that your eyes will roll right out of your head. Who knew that someone, anyone, heard a couple of Imagine Dragons album cuts, and thought “I want more of this.” The whole enterprise induces a shiver of revulsion.
Great art makes you feel things, I guess.