Halsey takes on new songwriting technique with conceptual album
February 14, 2020
Halfway through the month of January, Halsey announced the release of her third studio album, “Manic.” This is the first studio album Halsey has produced through Capitol Records, with her first two produced through Astralwerks. Already, there’s a sign this album will have a different sound, considering switching labels in the middle of an artist’s career is creatively a big deal. During my first listen, I immediately heard not only a style shift but also a shift in songwriting and a fresh, mature approach to music production. As I listened more, I noticed Halsey had created a conceptual album, with each song connecting to a larger theme.
I’m going to unpack “Manic” track-by-track to reveal hidden messages left behind by the songwriter and the new structural format Halsey is taking as a powerful woman in the music industry.
Track 1: Ashley
The first track starts listeners off with an echoey, synth-based instrumental that picks up once the first verse starts with a deep base. Halsey mentioned in a tweet before the album dropped that “Manic” is supposed to be listened to front to back (the order she wrote the songs in) to pick up on the full story. The reason “Ashley” is such a fitting opener is because it’s a song that explains the split personality Halsey experiences as a pop star. Ashley is her birth name, the one she goes by with personal family and close friends when she’s not toying with her stage persona. The biggest idea introduced with this track is the sense that the entire album was written from Ashley’s perspective, rather than Halsey’s.
Track 2: clementine
It’s a bold move, making this song appear so early in the album because sadder tracks usually don’t come up until later on. “clementine” has a very soft, romantic vibe, but the lyrics contradict its airy, piano sound. When looked at closer, it’s clear this song isn’t about being in love with someone, but rather reminiscing about a past relationship (or a relationship that has yet to come). It’s written quite beautifully and sets up just how much Halsey has grown as a songwriter. Although the song never really picks up musically, there’s a layer in her voice that arises after the second verse that adds a level of emotion the actual lyrics could never convey. It’s a cute song, sure, but it’s also one of the most heartbreaking moments on this album.
Track 3: Graveyard
This was Hasley’s second song to hit pop radio from “Manic,” and it’s obvious this was written for the sole purpose of being a single. It has the repetitive beats all pop songs these days seem to have, which take away from the album’s uniqueness. But despite it sounding like every other pop song on the radio, “Graveyard” does contain a deeper message about a relationship in which the singer felt like she was constantly chasing after her lover. It sets up this abusive ex character Hasley sings about more later on in the album. Overall, “Graveyard” is a solid song, but it lacks variety and a build-up in production.
Track 4: You should be sad
The start of this song was surprising because it had country music inspired acoustic riff, which was not what I expected to hear in on a Halsey album. The music doesn’t really build until the instrumental break after the first chorus when point a gain-infused electric guitar is introduced. Honestly, every instrument involved in this track adds to the sassy story Halsey is attempting to tell. This song is one of my favorites for several reasons, one being the fact that it successfully tells a story not only with lyrics but also with music. As the music intensifies, the story reaches its climax. As it fades away in the last few seconds, the story comes to a close and leads in perfectly to the next track.
Track 5: Forever … (is a long time)
Speaking of songs that tell stories with the music, this simplistic track does so effortlessly. As someone who geeks out easily over anything music-related, this track grabs my attention the most with the way it manages to COMPLETELY switch keys. Halsey starts off with a cute introduction of the story with simple piano chords. Then, about halfway through, the piano shifts into a minor key to convey a shift in the story. Once the key switch happens, a background effect of rain plays through the rest of the song. Why the artist decided to include this feature is unclear to me, but it definitely adds to the imagery. At the very end, a line sets up the storyline of the next song (again, the formatting of this album is such a masterpiece, I can’t even wrap my head around it).
Track 6: Dominic’s Interlude
This is the first collaboration and interlude featured on the album, with indie star Dominic Fike taking most of the vocals in this song. The track starts with the classic click of a tape recorder while Fike begins to sing in effect with sharp piano accompanying him the background. The song soon shifts to an orchestral element with extra harmonies. This song is on the short side, but its length does not take away from the experience. It connects to “Forever …(is a long time)” because there is a line at the end of it that is repeated throughout “Dominic’s Interlude.” And as if a listener thought the musical roller coaster was over, Halsey includes an almost seamless transition from the melody at the end of this track to the start of the next one.
Track 7: I HATE EVERYBODY
Following the last song, it is in the same the key, except now Halsey has now taken control of vocals. “I HATE EVERYBODY” has a very simplistic instrumental played with it, but her lyrics yet again tell a bigger story. This is one of the only songs on this album that gives listeners a happier vibe. Although the music and melody sound happy, when you listen closely, it’s clear to see Halsey was definitely struggling with self-confidence issues when writing this song. In the end, drums are introduced to give the track almost an “I-played-for-the-high-school-band” feel, with its chords resembling what you would hear here at a high school football game when the student section is trying to get hyped up.
Track 8: 3am
Now, for the banger we have all been waiting for. “3am” digs back to the sound pop-rock songs had in the early 2000s. Halsey begins with singing a fast-paced first verse to introduce the story of a girl who is drunkenly stumbling around in the middle of the night trying to find people to talk to about her problems. Honestly, this track is one of the most nostalgic songs I’ve heard in a while because it takes me back to the days where I’d walk around middle school in black, ripped jeans and an edgy band T-shirt. The upbeat vibe Halsey gave this song gives listeners a break from the emotional story she’s told so far with the previous tracks and allows them to just rock out for a minute. The best part about this song, though, is the very end when a person who sounds like they are speaking over the phone starts talking about Halsey’s “best song” and how it’s playing on the radio and will soon be a massive hit. Funnily enough, that ties in perfectly to “Manic”s next song…
Track 9: Without Me
As Halsey’s first single debuted off of this album, “Without Me” became her first top-five single since “Bad at Love” on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song starts listeners off easy with a simple, melancholy verse that has smooth trap beats that drop off once the beginning of the chorus hits. This is probably a perfect example of a cliche pop single, with its repetitive lyrics catching the attention of pop music enthusiasts. Thankfully, the repetition does not take away from the overall message this song has to offer, as the pop star sings about a toxic relationship that has previously ended and left her with some scars.
Track 10: Finally // beautiful stranger
This next song completely juxtaposes “Without Me,” by taking on a softer, acoustic sound where Halsey sings about a brand new relationship that makes her start to believe in love again. The track never picks up past a simple rhythm played on the guitar with some echoey synths and a drum beat that will make your head bob along with the music. This is also one of my favorite tracks because it has some of Halsey’s most beautiful lyrics. The singer totally strips her voice down to show raw emotion behind the love story she’s singing about and manages to paint love in a positive light for the first time on this album. It’s another example of how this album can be perceived as conceptual because it shows the progression of her trust with relationships as the album plays on.
Track 11: Alanis’ Interlude
As the second interlude on the album, it sets up a shift in the story with a hard-hitting collaboration with Alanis Morissette. The pair sing about a scandalous love affair that is seen as one of the more impactful experiences in Halsey’s love life, while also including an important message about sexual identity and labels on gay relationships in the chorus. It’s one of the simpler tracks in terms of music, but it carries a heavy message and is focused more on the lyrics rather than the instrumental.
Track 12: killing boys
This track is probably the most savage song on this entire album, in my opinion. Halsey sings about getting revenge on a past lover after they made her feel her lowest. It’s the only song after the second interlude, showing that Halsey didn’t want to dwell on the emotions mentioned in this section of the album for too long. It’s also on the shorter side, so it’s hard to pick apart in terms of an overall message that adds to the theme of the album. The sound she writes continues with this track, having deep, synthy beats keep a steady rhythm in the background while a catchy clap-beat is introduced with the first verse. It’s honestly not the most groundbreaking song on this album and is probably very underrated, but that’s what happens when artists include insignificant tracks to their albums.
Track 13: SUGA’s Interlude
Immediately following, this third and final interlude has BTS star SUGA featured on it. He may not sing in English, but he still plays an influential part in the story behind this song. This interlude perfectly sets up the vibe for the rest of the album because it introduces a deeper, darker side of Halsey as she and SUGA sing about the feelings she has with stardom and how fame has heavily affected not only the morals she sets for herself but also the future this stage character has created for her. I highly suggest reading the translated lyrics before fully deciding whether or not you appreciate this song, because after I read all the lyrics in English the entire meaning of the song shifted and left a bigger impact on the opinions I have on Halsey as a person. Not to mention having a song that’s not entirely in English is a big creative step and shows variety in the overall sound of this album.
Track 14: More
This track is yet another example of Halsey’s growth as a songwriter. It’s a very dark themed love song written about a soulmate she has yet to meet and how she’s in love with them despite never having an encounter with them yet. Again, this track strips her voice down to show raw emotion behind the lyrics she is singing and adds echoey harmonies in the chorus to send chills down your spine when listening to it with headphones plugged in at full volume. It really shows the vibe Halsey is planning on ending this album on and gives her fans insight to how she handles strong emotions like love and acceptance. This is the type of song to play when you’re feeling down in the dumps but not sad enough to cry.
Track 15: Still Learning
With a shift in the sound, “Still Learning” takes on the theme of hardship and the difficulties a famous person can experience when they’ve been in a spotlight during the most vital years of their life. Unlike the previous track, this talks about the sadness behind growing up and having to learn to love yourself rather than the sadness behind an abusive relationship. The catchy beats make this song have less of a depressing vibe compared to the past songs on this album where troubling and deep concepts are discussed. The lyrics and sound of this track definitely juxtapose each other, but that’s a feature in Halsey’s songwriting I admire. She’s able to sing about some of her worst fears without thinking her fans or other listeners won’t appreciate it.
Track 16: 929
This song is one of the most impactful closing tracks I’ve ever heard as a music fanatic, which is saying a lot because I’ve listened to many conceptual albums. It perfectly sums up basically every topic she’s written about in the 15 tracks above with her practically free-styling a poem with a simple guitar riff tacked on behind. The first time I heard this song I was sitting in my bed, alone and will have to admit it brought several tears to my eyes. It’s one of those songs that anyone can relate to because there’s at least one line that will make your heart stutter, whether it be about a love encounter or a mental health issue. As a songwriter myself, I admire this song because it not only acts as a seamless closing track to a conceptual album but also depicts such important issues that don’t get much attention in the music industry (especially pop music).
Overall, “Manic” is probably one of the best albums Halsey has ever written since her first single was dropped in 2014. The fact that as an artist she felt courageous enough to take her fans on such an emotional journey with her through these songs is inspirational. It’s albums like this that give me hope for women in the music industry. Halsey has been able to fully turn her fame into an outlet to touch on important topics, regardless of if they’re controversial or not.
It is refreshing to know there is still talent out there able to create such influential material in the form of a conceptual album. Halsey is still a new female face in the music industry, and I’m sure many young girls look up to her in the same way I look up to Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves. Creating an album like “Manic” was probably difficult, considering tackling new structural patterns in songwriting can be tough, but Halsey handled it like a boss and definitely left her mark on the music industry.