Having previously engaged a cohort of fervent young fans with her personal Tumblr posts and her eye-catching blue locks of hair, Halsey’s (her stage name is an anagram of her real-life first name) music career skyrocketed almost literally overnight. Following a successful single and EP, 2015’s platinum-selling Badlands set the 22-year-old apart from many of her pop contemporaries with its dark overtones and personal themes, both of which compensated for its slightly muddled dystopian concept. Yet the Jersey-born Ashley Frangipane’s stock has risen considerably more even since the album’s success. She has set off on expansive arena tours, contributed to the latest Fifty Shades Darker movie last year (OK, maybe that isn’t exactly a credible badge of honour) and hit number one across the world with her ‘Closer’ collaboration with The Chainsmokers, aka planet Earth’s latest EDM-cum-pop-singer upstarts. No longer afforded the security of anonymity which allowed her to garner such unexpected acclaim with her 2014 debut Room 93 EP, Halsey now has something to prove on her sophomore record.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is in theory a concept album revolving around two lovers, but from the outset appears inherently tethered to Halsey’s own romantic experiences (indeed, a recent Tweet from Halsey herself read “Shoutout to me for coming out with a new album every time I go through a breakup”.) ‘100 Letters’ exemplifies her adeptness in delivering a vivid narrative, in this case her regret over a failed relationship with someone she had become close to. It would be rather easy to classify Halsey as simply another brainless popstar masquerading as a genuinely interesting “alternative” artist (Does that even mean anything?), but lyrics like “I’m not something to butter up and taste when you get bored/I have spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors”, if not exactly Bob Dylan, are more profound than a lot of what occupies the charts these days, and suggest there is something deeper going on here.
In various forms and formats, romance has generally been the overriding thematic feature of Halsey’s music since she rose to recognition. The strikingly self-aware 22-year-old has at times not been shy in expressing her carnal desires, with images of car backseat liaisons and biting the shoulder tattoo of a lover featuring in the aforementioned Chainsmokers hit. Here, ‘Heaven in Hiding’ is arguably even more overtly sexual, as it describes one lover’s “putting up a fight” and putting on a “show” while the presumed moment of ecstasy is illustrated as a “crimson headache/aching blush”. It doesn’t require much in-depth analysis to identify the glaring sexual connotations in some of Halsey’s previous work (hell, her debut EP is named after a hotel room), and Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is no different. Assuming the character talking in this song is Halsey herself, or at least a female character, there is also a hint of feminism, of the female dominating the self-anointed “boss” (presumably the man). As a whole, the album is a little too trite lyrically to be taken seriously as a female call to arms of any sort (it probably isn’t trying to be, either), but the allusions can be noted nevertheless.
Still, the album is not without its flaws. The reciting of part of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on opener ‘The Prologue’ is about the least original romantic reference point one could think of, and ‘Sorry’ is a nondescript ballad which passes without much to remark upon, while ‘Lie’ consists mainly of a reverbed excess of melisma from its star and a painfully cliched verse from Quavo of American hip-hop group Migos. As she veers from despair over lousy treatment at the hands of the opposite sex to bemoaning an inability to hold onto a lover (“He’ll never stay/They never do” in The Weeknd-influenced ‘Eyes Closed’, another track largely based around bedroom activities), it is difficult to decide what side of the fence Halsey is on; self-blame or contempt. It’s clear that the album is an ode to relationships and their deep complexities, but the subject wears a little thin after a while. Bodies of work which centre solely around love (or lust) and heartbreak must tap into the listener’s subconscious emotions and dredge up feelings they perhaps haven’t previously been aware of in order to really work (think Blood on the Tracks or, for a more modern example, Beck’s Sea Change). Hopeless Fountain Kingdom may not be an out-and-out breakup album, but it is not quite strong enough to stand up as the modern-day operatic romance tale it hopes to be.
I have always felt that the elaborate ideas and concepts which Halsey so vehemently professes to be the bases of all her artistic creations simply don’t come across in the music enough. If we are to try and read her albums as a story, as she clearly intends us to, then Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, like Badlands, comes across as clunky and at times incoherent in a narrative sense. Supposedly set in a limbo-like realm, there is little evidence of this throughout the record, nor is there much fluidity or consistency in the song themes (apart from love). One thus commits the same error as the other in that while they both experience good moments musically, neither follows a coherent linear narrative as Halsey evidently believes (or hopes) they do.
There are high points littered throughout this record, moments of raw honesty intertwined with a sassy, don’t-take-no-shit delivery which demonstrate Halsey’s strength as an artist. Solid production (Greg Kurstin and Benny Blanco, who have written and produced for Adele and Justin Bieber among others, contributed to the record) gives the album a gleam which renders the more poppy songs more than fit to stand next to anything else in the current Charts. Vaguely experimental missteps and pseudo-emotional snooze-fests aside, Halsey shines most when delivering unabashed power pop songs with a hard-hitting and personal narrative. ‘Now or Never’ and ‘Bad at Love’, two R&B infused slow jams, are Ms Frangipane at her most formidable. And while her lyrics sometimes stray too far towards the wrong side of cliché, Halsey generally knows how to tell a story through her music. Often on the verge of spilling the beans on her darkest and most illicit encounters, she is forthright without spoiling the suspense and leaving nothing to the imagination. This doesn’t always come across as sincere as she would like it to, however, and Hopeless Fountain Kingdom ultimately falls victim to the same problem as its predecessor – tangled, and in danger of being more melodramatic than sincerely melancholic.