Even with the tempting call of the mainstream and its riches within earshot, Halsey claims to be more than just an artist that feeds the voracious radio pop merry-go-round. There’s also a huge percentage that are doubtful about Halsey and her image, that it’s a conceit constructed by music industry sharks with boxes to tick for the angsty teen demographic. The case for both opinions is plausible; Halsey has shown that she can operate comfortably at the intersection of the gutsy alternative and pristine pop reproduction and yet so many facets of her pop persona suggest that she’s been moulded with selective breeding at the heart of her illustration.
Her debut album Badlands suggested a superstar-in-waiting and inevitably, as with many of our current pop crop, that means the sophomore will smooth out any specific edges in order to fit criteria. That notion comes across strongly on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. There’s the uplifting piano ballad (‘Sorry’), late ’90s/early 2000s pop (‘Walls Could Talk’), perfumed R&B (‘Alone’), and of course the pop move of the moment- a Migos-assisted track that’s a little unsure of where it sits in regards to genre (‘Lie’). The album’s lead single ‘Now Or Never’ helps to lay the floor for the album’s concept but it also surrenders to recycling, as it ultimately ends up being a rehash of Badlands‘ best moments.
Much of Hopeless‘ predictability could be solved by an acquisition of more unique and obscure producers. Like so many albums with chart aspiration, Halsey’s sophomore effort features every pop star’s go-to producers and writers- Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco, Cashmere Cat and Sia all feature amongst the credits. You can’t deny their respective track records but as an artist, if you truly aspire to breach the mainstream with something sustainable, and more importantly, distinctive, you need to look beyond the producers that fuelled your adversaries’ success. ‘Devil In Me’ and ‘Eyes Closed’ are prime examples of this. The former, co-written by Sia, is basically Halsey performing karaoke over a Sia instrumental and the latter, co-written by The Weeknd, even sees Halsey going as far as to inhabit The Weeknd’s lifestyle- emotionless sexual encounters that fail to fill the void of a broken meaningful relationship.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom gives Halsey a blank canvas to endlessly experiment with and the dilemma between pop longevity and artistic integrity proves to be a damaging balancing act. Halsey does very little to mark herself out from the crowd of damaged, gutsy songstresses but some of these trial-and-errors do mutate into successes. The cool Californian vibe of ‘100 Letters’ succeeds at summery alt-pop and the album’s finest track, the Lauren Jauregui-featuring ‘Strangers’, builds beautifully on a glistening ’80s pop production with a tale of a same-sex relationship that painfully broke down. It’s one of the few moments where the message matches the image and ideology that Halsey is striving for. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is by no means an awful album but it could do with more individuality and less industry standard.