Music Reviews

Halsey Fails to Find Herself On "Manic"

"Manic" features BTS' Suga, Alanis Morissette, Dominic Fike, and many different versions of Halsey.

Halsey's new album might be called Manic, but though its lyrics often reference the symptoms of mania in bipolar disorder—impulsivity, hyper-social behavior, and intense euphoria—it sounds calculated and weary, like someone taking stock in the midst of a comedown, looking over the scars and broken glass from last night's party.

But instead of hiding her wounds and fears away in plastic bags, Halsey sculpts her broken pieces into a work of art.

The themes on Manic aren't exactly unique. Halsey sings about lostness—a constant of the human experience—and her observations about self-loathing, betrayal, and hyper-visibility will feel particularly familiar to a generation raised on social media in an era when the self is perpetually monetized and fractured.

Halsey is uniquely talented at crystallizing her lack of a solid self into hit pop songs, which could soundtrack bars and nightclubs just as easily as your next sob session.

Sonically, the album is collage-like, studded with features, and overall a bit exhausting to listen to. It's at its best when it fades into silences or lets a few dreamy guitars wander through, but sometimes all the elements together become overbearing. That was probably Halsey's intent, though—to create a roller-coaster that emulates her roller-coaster life and mind.

Halsey borrows extensively from other artists and genres, and sonic references pop up like Instagram notifications. On "clementine," she sounds like she's imitating the sing-shouting style of Twenty One Pilots. "I don't need anyone," she screams. "I just need everyone and then some. I'm always having a breakthrough / or a breakdown." "Forever … (is a long time)" features whisper-singing reminiscent of Billie Eilish, and "Dominic's Interlude" sounds a bit like the Beach Boys. "3am" borrows an electric guitar tone and punk drum sound from emo songs of the early aughts, and the dark and claustrophobic "killing boys" evokes the tune of Matchbox Twenty's "Unwell." There are also excellent features from Alanis Morrissette and BTS's Suga. This abundance of tributes and guests isn't a flaw; if anything, it's a flex. Halsey is showing us that she can become anything or anyone.

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That makes her determination to strip back every element of persona even more admirable. In her introduction to the album, Halsey says, "There's an ancient saying that you have three faces. The first one, you broadcast to the world. The second, you show to those closest to you. And the last one, you never show to anyone."

For her, "The first one is Halsey. The second is Ashley. But there's a third that exists in the cracks between the two—the most carnal, uninhibited explicit flash of color and light hiding in the center of my chest. I'm Halsey. Ashley. And I'm offering you a glimpse of that third face."

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True to her word, these songs are windows into Halsey's secret self, the one that hides far below the skin, the one that's never palatable enough to show itself to others. The third-face we meet on Manic is full of self-doubt and self-loathing, constantly grappling with her desire to be loved and her lack of love for herself. She wants to be everything, but at the end of every wild night she feels like nothing, so she searches for fulfillment in everyone around her, dancing around the hole in her own chest. That's a sentiment that appears often; it's especially prominent on "I HATE EVERYBODY," which features zingers like, "If I can make you love me, maybe I can make me love me."

Even though she occasionally risks falling into the realm of triteness and cliche, Halsey often throws in a surprising metaphor or a fragment of weird poetry to knock the listener off-guard. "I'm feeling like a scaly thing / wrapped around my master," she says in "I HATE EVERYBODY," a vivid description of the visceral, physical shapes that suffering can take. A lot of Manic is about the internal world—blood under the skin, spiderwebs in the face—and these surreal details function like secret doors, letting you into abstract feelings, leading down strange passageways.

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Maybe that was always the point. The album is an excavation, and Halsey is figuratively tearing open her chest and offering her guts to the world.

In Warsan Shire's poem "The House," the narrator traces her traumas by visualizing her body as a home, full of trapdoors and basement rooms. "Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women," it begins. Later, Shire writes, "I point to my body and say Oh this old thing? No, I just slipped it on." Shire could be talking about the kind of slippery persona that Halsey is desperately trying to discard throughout Manic.

But as it turns out, the more readily you discard your defense mechanisms, the closer you are to those basement rooms. The closing song "929" marks the climax of this search, as it's almost painfully confessional.

But it's also honest about the limits of confession. At the beginning of "929," Halsey tells us that she was born at 9:29 AM on 9/29. At the very end, she mumbles, "I was really born at 9:26. I saw my birth certificate. I'm a liar. I'm a f*cking liar."

So much of Manic revolves around Halsey's desire to find herself in others and to pour herself completely into her art. But what if you can't dissolve yourself in someone else's arms or on the page, no matter how much you search for release?

By the end of the album, Halsey seems to be realizing that the person she really is might actually be a million different people at once. She's a million fragments of glass, as scattered as the stars. Fortunately, she knows how to paint constellations onto the darkness.

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