by Michael McCarthy
Today, the 17th of January 2020, marks the release of alternative pop singer/songwriter Halsey’s highly-anticipated third album, Manic.
The first single from the LP, “Without Me,” was released back in October 2018, so to say this album was a long time coming is an understatement. Granted, at the time “Without Me” was released, it was just intended to be a one-off single that wouldn’t be on Manic, but its massive success would seem to have mandated its inclusion as it sits as Manic’s 9th track. Whether or not it fits with the rest of the album would seem to be beside the point because most of the songs on the record feel mismatched with tracks spanning several different genres — electropop, country, R&B, hip-hop, bubblegum pop — that all sound like they’re from different albums because they were made by so many different people.
If I counted the album’s credits on Wikipedia correctly, it took 37 writers and 19 producers to make Manic. Halsey is the first person named in the writing credits for each of the songs, but, still, she’s just one out of a staggering 37 writers. Even if she wrote all of the lyrics herself, you’re still hearing the work of roughly 50 other people will you listen to Manic. And it’s a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Way, way too many cooks.
Look, I love Halsey. I first came to know her when I saw her as a last-minute substitute at Boston Calling back in 2015 and was impressed by songs like “Hold Me Down” and “New Americana,” which seemed to have a new and interesting perspective on feminist pop and her generation. And I had no doubt that the subsequent album those songs were on, Badlands, was in Hasley’s voice. On most Badlands’ tracks, she’d simply had one co-writer and one producer and I didn’t doubt that the lyrics were all her own.
On the following album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey had a few more cooks in the kitchen, but there were still plenty of songs that were simply composed by Halsey and one writer, which has always made sense since — to the best of my knowledge — she doesn’t play many instruments or produce. Accordingly, this always gave me the impression that she wrote the lyrics and melodies and the collaborators helped program the beats and otherwise produced the tracks. With Manic, I don’t know what happened. Why she would’ve felt like she needed to collaborate with that many people? I mean, approximately 50 of them? Really?
My guess would be that the record label and its board of directors saw the potential to make even more money off of her and insisted she work with all of these hit record gurus and song doctors to ensure that that would happen. I mean, do you have a better theory? Surely, Halsey is talented enough that she could sit down and write out an album’s worth of lyrics and melodies completely on her own over the course of a few weeks. Of that I’m sure. So, why, then, must you bring in 37 outside writers? Are Halsey’s songs not radio-friendly enough without several people producing them each to death?
To give you an example, it took five writers and three producers just to create the one minute and sixteen-second interlude “Dominic’s Interlude,” on which rapper Dominic Pike sings a brief but pleasant Brian Wilson-esque ditty. It’s a nice track, but one that makes you feel like it could have, and should have, been fleshed out into a full song. And a full song that shouldn’t have been on a Halsey album but a Dominic Pike album since it’s mostly just him singing alone. And because you could say it sticks out like a sore thumb, it contributes to the album’s mixtape vibe, which is to say that it feels less like an album by a singular artist than a mixtape someone made showcasing several different artists that they’re a fan of. Another track that seems completely out of place here is “SUGA’S Interlude,” which features a brief rap by Suga of the extremely popular K-Pop boy band BTS in Korean. Would this cameo have even happened if BTS wasn’t even more popular than Halsey right now?
Hey, maybe Halsey met Suga and they’ve become great friends in spite of the language barrier and she wanted to have him on her album for that reason. I can’t be sure. But the whole album smells of a sell-out, of an artist who’s lost their confidence letting others telling them what to do, the artist believing that if they let these others all get their two cents in then somehow the album would be better than whatever they might do on their own. I can see how a record label might be able to manipulate someone into believing they need all of these people. And I think it’s really sad.
Manic is supposed to be Halsey’s most personal album yet with the artist wanting to convey her different interests and moods and how she’s all over the place as someone bipolar. I can appreciate that because I’m a creative, bipolar individual myself. The difference is that when my ideas are scattered and not meshing well together, I have friends and fans who I can rely on to reign me in and say this works and that doesn’t and their guidance leads me to create my best work. Perhaps, then, Halsey did benefit from the guidance of some of her collaborators. But with over 50 of them, I can’t help but believe that she mostly received a lot of conflicting information. Especially when you know that all of these writers and producers didn’t always work on the songs at the same time. No, a song might start off being written and produced by Halsey and one or two writers, and then someone else produces it, but the label thinks the bridge could be tighter so she goes back to the drawing board with another writer and comes up with something tighter to please the label. But now the label doesn’t think it’s punchy enough so they give it to another producer who replaces the song’s main driving beat with something louder. Finally, another producer is brought in to remix the vocals add flourishes of synth before a final producer is brought in to shave a few seconds off the beginning and end so the song can thus be played on pop radio more often since shorter songs tend to get more airplay. That probably sounds absurd, but I’d bet that’s exactly what happened with half of the songs on Manic.
My favorite track on Manic is a ballad called “More,” but it clocks in at just 2:33, so it ultimately ends up feeling like just another interlude on an album that already has too many interludes. But at least this interlude just has Halsey singing on it, whereas the three tracks that get the distinction of actually being called interludes mostly have others performing on them. Ultimately, though, eight tracks on Manic — half the album! — are under three minutes long and they almost all feel more like interludes than finished songs.
At some point, I suspect, most of the tracks on Manic were brilliant or close to it. But that time has passed and what we’re left with feels like an album of Halsey pretending to be whatever or whoever the producers and writers her label hired wanted her to be. I can only hope that there’s some backlash against this album and that Halsey puts her foot down and simply works on her next album with a small number of friends and comes out with a record where the ideas feel fully formed and not half-erased. An album where you feel like she’s really speaking to you when you hear her sing and not just reading from a lyric sheet with five people’s handwriting scribbled all over it. She could call it Halsey: Uncensored. Or Free Halsey. Or maybe I Don’t Give A Fuck. Although that last one might be a good alternate title for Manic because you get the feeling that she started off caring about the album but eventually through her arms up in the air and surrendered, letting the label have it their way.