Halsey has done pretty well for herself without even releasing an album, due to her social media presence, which isn’t unusual for a pop star these days. Badlands is actually quite close to a concept album when it’s put into context. I can hear the Pink Floyd dad-rockers snorting from here, but it’s a pretty cohesive themed album, which is more than I can ask for for a debut album. The gist of it is that the ‘Badlands’, or the lawless, corrupt city of Las Vegas and the surrounding desert, is a metaphor for a lonely, sad mind. It sounds a little bit pretentious, but when the album is consumed it makes a whole lot more sense. In the modern age of pop artists, with Lorde, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, it’s not unusual to see popstar capitalise on fan relationships, but from what is heard, Halsey means every single word of what she sings.
Instrumentally, Halsey deploys the Taylor Swift manual, with added EDM and dance in parts. ‘Castle’ starts with gritty electronica, ‘New Americana’, one of the biggest singles on the album, has Lorde and Swift all over it. Lyrically, it shouldn’t work at all, ‘We are the New Americana / high on legal marijuana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana’. But it’s such a banger that it’s impossible not to like. In every conceivable way, it’s textbook pop, but Halsey turns the most cringe-worthy of lyrics into statement of defiance and intent. The rest of the album is thankfully less lyrically-odd than ‘New Americana’, taking into account some pretty dark topics: sex, violence and drugs. ‘Castle’s lyrics have elements of FKA Twigs commentary on modelling and dancing, whereas here Halsey sings ‘Sick of all these people talking’ and ‘Tired of all these cameras flashing / sick of being poised’. It’s also one of the more feminist-oriented tracks, where the chorus is ‘And there’s an old man sitting on the throne that’s saying I should probably keep my pretty mouth shut’. Halsey previously stated that this is an ‘angry female album’ and songs such as ‘Castle’ show her at her most defiant. If this is what pop means in the modern age, role models like Halsey for young people can’t really be a bad thing with the message she often delivers.
‘Drive’ is one of the tracks that has direct links to the Badlands theme. ‘California never felt like home to me’ and ‘All we do is think about the feelings we hide’ narrate Halsey’s drive through the desert. It gets slightly awkward when the sounds of a car starting up, a male vocalist duets with Halsey and windscreen wipers finish the track off. It’s moments like these when the dark, neon-lit mood breaks in favour of oddities and male vocals that don’t really contribute too much. Speaking of moments that don’t really work, ‘Roman Holiday’ is one of the tracks with lyrics that just sound like another teenage breakaway anthem. Lyrics such as ‘Do you remember the taste of my lips that night / I stole a bit of my mother’s perfume’ and ‘For now let’s get away’ are backed by average electro-pop. A lot of time the instrumentation is forgettable.
‘Coming Down’ is an acoustic ballad. The stripped back sound with just Halsey and an acoustic guitar makes it one of the better songs on Badlands, once again returning to themes of sex, religion and drugs. The double tracked vocals are beautiful during the chorus and I wish Halsey used vocal harmonies more often, as it works a treat. Too often Halsey returns to the mid-tempo indie-pop, which at first works fine, but eleven songs in, it feels as if I’ve heard the same song a good few times. A little bit of experimentation never goes amiss.
Badlands, as a concept, is very interesting. Sometimes Halsey diverts from the themes and she could have been a little more cohesive, but for a debut album, it’s astonishingly well put-together. The production is slick and radio-ready, Halsey’s vocals never disappoint and there are rare flashes of experimentation, such as ‘Castle’, ‘Control’ or ‘Coming Down’. For a pop star in the same area as Taylor Swift or Lorde, Halsey holds up both in message, pop appeal and single-power. The fist-pumping anthemic nature of Badlands suggests a downfall followed by a comeback. It’s occasionally blurred, but generally Badlands is an assured debut which will no doubt lead to commercial success. And besides, who doesn’t love a comeback story?
Funnel Recommends: New Americana / Castle / Coming Down