For those who find the high-drama of Halsey less than endearing, her second album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, starts off in dangerous territory. It opens with the 22-year-old singer reciting the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, but luckily the record (largely) avoids easy melodrama, resulting in a clear step forward for the nascent pop star.
On her debut album, Badlands, Halsey attempted to speak for an entire generation of vexed millennials. This led to a few quality tracks like the murky, slow-burning “Hold Me Down”, but also the brutally awkward banner waving of “New Americana”, which is cringe-worthy whether or not you factor in the layer of irony which Halsey claims many missed.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is more focused on Halsey herself, fixating on both her dysfunctional trysts and also her relationship with fame now that she’s been in the spotlight for a while. While she was under-qualified to lead the youth revolt on Badlands and overqualified to be Drew Taggart’s foil on the Chainsmoker’s “Closer”, she’s managed to find a sweet spot here that indicates the potential for more longevity than any of her previous work.
“Alone” has the texture of a vintage Roc-A-Fella era rap track, with rich, expansive horn and strings condensed into a sample like astronaut ice cream. It’s elegant but also solemn, Halsey herself described it as having a “Gatsby vibe”, which is spot on. “I got a new place in Cali, but I'm gone every night / So I fill it with strangers so they keep on the lights”, she confesses on the opening verse.
The album’s lead single “Now or Never” doesn’t reinvent the wheel (if anything it cribs heavily from Rihanna’s raw, recent work), but it is an exceedingly effective mid-tempo summer jam. It’s certainly a departure from her take-on-the-world persona on Badlands, but it doesn’t betray her confrontational, in-your-face nature.
Two of the album’s more glib moments of pop fun come when Halsey channels something like FutureSex/LoveSounds era Justin Timberlake. On both “Don’t Play” and “Walls Could Talk” you would be forgiven for expecting Timbaland ad-libs to pop up out of nowhere, but Halsey does a solid enough job of updating a pleasingly campy mid-2000s sound.
“Lie” is a misstep, though that’s more due to man-of-the-moment Quavo’s verse featuring a curious lack of percussion, and the song’s shapeless, one-word hook. Though she has an interesting and emotive voice, Halsey doesn’t have the powerhouse voice to carry some of the album’s more intricate riffing or the emotional weight of a ballad like “Sorry”. Elsewhere on the album she proves capable of finding unique spaces within more percussive records, but her melody is predictable here atop the track’s theatrical piano chords.
Halsey’s best strength is her ability to convey her anger and torment, but often her vocals are masked in fuzzy distortion or cloaked in reverb.
The one-two punch of “Angel on Fire” and “Devil in Me” is vintage high-stakes Halsey. Both tracks are produced by Greg Kurstin, who helped craft Adele’s “Hello”, who crafts glitzy instrumentals that sound like they’ve been submerged underwater. The former is bogged down by an emo hook that is only one standard deviation away from Linkin Park or Evanescence, but the latter does a better job of maintaining its heft without going overboard.
Halsey may not have found the sound that will define the next stage of her career on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, but by finding intermittent success with several of them she proves to have more versatility than her previous solo outings indicated. 2017 has had better pop records surely, but hearing Halsey grow as an artist is a uniquely rewarding experience that makes the album’s faults more forgivable and its successes more thrilling.