Ashley Frangipane is a woman of contradictions.
Her debut album, Badlands, was an exercise in the creation of an alt-pop starlet not confined by the strict borders of commercial pop music; yet she was instrumental in the success of the Chainsmoker’s mega-hit ‘Closer,’ amongst the most blasé creations in recent memory.
Coming off the biggest hit of her career – and her first proper breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness – Halsey’s sophomore album hopeless fountain kingdom (!) is the perfect time for her to strike the balance between alternative and popular, the two dichotomies that are now more than ever at the heart of popular music and the insular battle fought by all its participants.
The problem with Halsey, however, is not her attempt to reconcile these two concepts – the best tracks of Badlands such as ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Colors’ managed this with extraordinary ease – it’s her seeming inability to craft music that is not in someway a self-indignant reflection of herself. The art of being an auteur is a wonderful quality in a popstar, and indeed some of the strongest artistic statements from the realm of popular music in recent years have been the result of pop auteurs taking control of their oeuvre. Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, Beyonce’s Lemonade, even Taylor Swift’s 1989 ratified their creators’ commercial prowess and saw them working at the height of their creative powers. But Halsey, whilst she may get there eventually, is too wrapped up in herself to see the wood for the trees.
As a debut album, Badlands was an extraordinary ambitious project. And there are some truly stellar moments that hint at the emergence of a true star, from the enigmatic opener ‘Castle’, to the synth-pop-haze of ‘Roman Holiday’ and the anthemic feel of lead single ‘New Americana’. But the album was dragged down by its hefty concept set in a dystopian society, with some tracks (and Halsey herself) attempting to create and strand together a narrative that was simply too big for her to carry off. While it certainly made a name for Halsey, commercial success for Badlands’ singles was relatively few and far between and it was her feature-spot on ‘Closer’ that really brought Halsey into the public awareness.
In the run-up to the announcement of hopeless fountain kingdom, Halsey teased collaborations with mainstream pop producers like Benny Blanco (who helped out on Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream), Ricky Reed (who had the unfortunate luck of producing Meghan Trainor’s Thank You) and Greg Kurstin (the Grammy-winning producer whose written with Sia and Lily Allen and wrote ‘Hello’ with Adele) which sounded like she was finally making a consolidated effort to keep her ambitions lofty but also team them with a commercial sensibility to trim them down and filter them for a mainstream audience. She told Rolling Stone that “she was more than capable of writing radio music (…) and I’ll hopefully put my money where my mouth is on this album.”
Given these promises, it was quite surprising to hear ‘Now or Never’, the first release from hopeless fountain kingdom, because it was, immediately, not sounding like a radio-conquering hit. Sure, it’s a nice song; it’s low-sung pop’n’b synths sound very similar to Rihanna’s ‘Sex With Me’ and there’s similarities between the work of Ryn Weaver and Sky Ferreira. It’s kitschy but undeniably catchy but it’s understated, whereas the first single from a second album should be an attention-catching statement of intent.
The same can’t be said, however, for the track’s bombastic video. There’s little to no use describing the plot or the visual aesthetics of the video because if you’ve been Baz Luhrmann’s adaption Romeo + Juliet, telling the story of a forbidden love within a dystopian society. Only this time there’s psychics in plague masks reading tarot and Halsey doing some quite remarkable overacting.
You can’t fault the ambition clearly at work here and Halsey’s clearly never one to play it safe but the one nagging feeling that just won’t go away is that if Halsey were to look past herself – past the overblown concepts and overwrought aesthetics – then maybe she could achieve what she’s setting out to do and become the great pop star that’s clearly at work underneath most of the other nonsense on display here.
Here’s hoping for that second single?
Words by George Griffiths