I first heard Halsey when I saw her live at Boston Calling music festival back in May. She was a replacement for someone who canceled at the last minute and by the end of her seductive set, I wanted to call up and thank whoever canceled for freeing up the slot for her. I’m pretty sure most of the massive audience wanted to make that call, too. She was like a snake charmer and we were the snakes, enchanted by her music. Except for the elderly couple standing next to me, who said, “She just wants to be another Lady Gaga.”
“I’m headed straight for the castle / They want to make me their queen,” Halsey sings with determination in her voice on the album’s opening track, “Castle.” Like the majority of the songs on Badlands, it features a rich, electronic soundscape, all of which I believe she created herself, her mind wildly imaginative and highly intelligent, things you’re sure to agree with by the time you’re halfway through the album.
Supposedly, the songs on Badlands are arranged in chronological order, starting with her earliest tracks, but the production is grade A from the start, like the richest dark chocolate. Of course, dark chocolate can be bitter and there’s definitely some bitterness in some of the songs here, such as the second track, “Hold Me Down,” which, she told the Boston Calling audience, is about when she was raped. Here’s the riveting chorus: “Hold me down, hold me down, sneaking out the back door, make no sound / Knock me out, knock me out, saying that I want more, this is what I live for / Hold me down, hold me down, throw me in the deep and watch me down.” Powerful stuff, eh? The strange thing is that the chorus is actually catchy in a sugary pop kind of way. This is part of the brilliance of Halsey, though, her ability to make a point and make it sound so wonderful that you don’t necessarily notice it unless you pay close attention to the lyrics. That said, you should definitely listen to her lyrics, being that they’re one of the best things about the album.
The highly infectious, Lorde-esque anthem “New Americana” follows. The chorus: “We are the New Americana / High on legal marijuana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana / They are the New Americana.” The song is about the pros and cons of the world Halsey lives in, however, not merely pop culture references. “Survival of the richest,” that sort of thing. Still, it will make you raise your fists and sing along.
Her vulnerability shows during “Drive,” which finds her behind the wheel, literally and metaphorically. “All we do is drive / All we do is think about the feelings that we hide,” begins the chorus. It’s one of many haunting songs on Badlands, a trippy mid-tempo ballad.
“Hurricane” reminds me of BANKS a bit, in terms of its lush electronic music and the pain in Halsey’s voice as she sings, especially at the beginning. There’s pleasure, too, there. “I went down to a place in Bed-Stuy / A little liquor on my lips / I let him climb inside my body / And held him captive in my kiss.” It’s the sort of thing Lana Del Rey might sing and there is nothing wrong with that. But it’s all Halsey, even when she’s singing to almost dizzying, trip-hop style beats. As for the sexual experience described, it’s hard to tell if it’s something she’s proud of or if it’s something she regrets; my guess would be that it’s a combination of both, sexual experiences often being very complicated and all.
“No one’s gonna wait on a Roman Holiday,” she sings on “Roman Holiday.” “Could you imagine the taste of your lips if we never tried to kiss on the drive to Queens / Cause I imagine the weight of your ribs if you lied between my hips in the backseat / I imagine the tears in your eyes the very first night I sleep without you / And when it happens I’ll be miles away,” goes part of an early verse.” There’s always a certain gravity to her lyrics, some je ne sais quoi that makes them superior to most artists’ lyrics. You feel like her words are coming down the mountain from a goddess; hers is the voice of an enchanted queen.
The final track on the 16 song deluxe edition is a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” which she totally revamps in her electro-style with an arrangement that grows in intensity and instrumentation as it goes on. Somehow, in a mind-blowing fashion, Halsey’s version is more emotive than the original. Shockingly, Halsey’s is a totally depressing ballad; it sounds like she’s a slave to the person she’s walking that line for. When she sings “because you’re mine / I walk the line,” it sounds like the world is about to end. Look, I know Johnny Cash is the fucking man, obviously, but Halsey is the fucking WOMAN. This is easily one of the best covers you’ll ever hear and a perfect ending for Badlands. Definitely pay the extra few dollars for the deluxe version now so you’re not sitting around wishing you’d done so later. Because you will fall in love with the 11 songs on the standard edition. And then you will want more. Trust me.