Pop is thronged with notional female rebels, often marketing-led creations seeking to exploit some imagined patch of listenership by gyrating more attitudinally than the last bit of cannon fodder. Many 12-year-olds can sense this.
When New Jersey native Halsey came along, though, with her gamine hairdo, her bipolarity, her bisexuality and some plausibly autobiographical tales of overcoming bad chemical scenarios, pop received an unexpected new voice: flawed and gutsy, but still operating at a viable commercial intersection. The granular, sonically distinct storytelling of Ashley Frangipane’s hit debut, Badlands – a concept album – brought to mind a shopsoiled Taylor Swift (this is a compliment). Hit single New Americana epitomised a landscape in which genre strictures had withered away.
Could such individuality survive success? The wordy title of Halsey’s follow-up – it probably relates to an ex-boyfriend, and an actual fountain – bodes well. Now or Never, the album’s first R&B-ish single, boasts a cinematic, Romeo and Juliet-themed video. Opening track The Prologue quotes the play, so conceptual forethought remains a selling point; 100 Letters starts with some of Halsey’s trademark mix of righteousness (“I’m not something to butter up and taste when you get bored”) and self-excoriation (“I’ve spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors”).
But over 13 tracks, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom does succumb to post-hit syndrome. It’s not remotely bad; it certainly sounds just like one of the most hotly awaited pop albums of 2017. But you can discern, just off stage, the chorus of unignorable industry types bearing down on one bankable creative, advising this timely collaboration, that hot producer, this set of references. Halsey’s generic guest spot on a massive 2016 hit by The Chainsmokers, Closer, was an omen.
Producer (and Halsey ex) Lido endures from the Badlands era, but the litany of A-listers such as Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, Sia Furler and the Weeknd (as well as background figures such as Rihanna writer Brittany “Starrah” Hazzard) suck Halsey into the matrix of sameyness currently plaguing pop.
Eyes Closed is a dashed-off Weeknd song – not bad, but a cultural act that furthers only Abel Tesfaye’s brand extension, rather than Halsey’s. When she goes a bit R&B, you can’t help but hear Rihanna (via Furler and Hazzard) or maybe Kehlani, when you want to hear Halsey. The unity of authentic voice, imagined place and idiosyncratic sound that powered an old song such as Gasoline is gone, mulched into hit-gunge. Lie (featuring Quavo) suffers from pointless over-epicness. The poignant Sorry, where Halsey apologises to friends and lovers for “trying them on like jewellery”, is an off-the-peg piano ballad.
But Strangers (with Lauren Jauregui) is a casually same-sex love-gone-wrong song, while Alone, the album’s standout, bends Halseyness into a convincing new shape in which old soul has an attractive role. With the aid of headphones and intriguing little interludes such as Good Mourning, you can still locate a Halsey record under all the pugnacious production.