Halsey’s intentions are always loud and clear, but too often the music doesn’t live up to them.
If we’re to take Halsey on her word, Manic is the first album by Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, not the anagrammatic character her stage name implies. That’s bollocks—if this was the first album by Frangipane, it’d be credited as such—but the songs on the New Jersey singer’s third album add up to a portrait of an individual more vivid than on most albums climbing the charts. Though it doesn’t take nearly the same risks or climb to nearly the same heights, there’s some of the same energy here as on Beyoncé’s self-titled, an album whose songs added up to as close to a complete portrait of an individual at a specific moment in time as you’re ever likely to see on a pop album.
The focus on Manic is almost single-mindedly on herself and her desire for commitment rather than to be used. She has a lot of sex—her frankness about this is as refreshing as it was on 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom—but just wants someone to not lie to her. Because she’s personable and often funny, because she broadcasts those emotions into anthems anyone who’s ever experienced what she’s going through can shout along with, we don’t get bored or feel like we’re needlessly sitting through solipsism. This is the rare pop album that genuinely feels like someone sitting across the table from us and pouring out their soul. In the past, she often hid her concerns behind arty concepts. She doesn’t mince words here, and the best moments are blunt exclamations of truth: screaming “I don’t need anyone!” deep in the mix of “Clementine,” or deadpanning “someone, please come flirt with me” on “3AM.”
The presence of Alanis Morrissette on one of several interludes feels like a statement of intent. Halsey is a descendant of Alanis: a chart artist making shamelessly commercial music that still feels raw and different and might make someone who feels as alienated as she does feel a little bit better. It’s surprising it took this long for her to realize how good she sounds over alt-rock (“3AM”) and country (“You Should Be Sad”) production. The sound of someone physically attacking a guitar is a better fit for her verve and lifeforce than the bland, half-speed trap-pop she usually goes for. Manic would’ve been stronger as a straight-up pop-punk or country album than the mishmash we find here, which includes the vaguely reggaetón “Still Learning” and an inexplicable rap by a BTS member. Rather than courting the consistency of a Lorde or an Ariana Grande, she seems to be throwing dirt at the wall.
Though she’s learning to let her songs speak for themselves, there remains a massive disconnect between her perception of her music and ours. On Hopeless Fountain Kingdom she seemed to think she was making a conceptual song suite when it was really a pop album with more interludes than usual. Here, Halsey seems to think her music is a lot more transgressive than it is. She uses “fuck” constantly, as if the word has shock value, and it actually throws off the rhythm of a key moment in “3AM.” A line like “I’m glad I never ever had a baby with you” cuts deeper than any profanity can. Subtlety’s not her thing. Her intentions are always loud and clear, but too often the music doesn’t live up to them.