Review Summary: If this is the New Americana, then we're in for a long ride.
The hype train can be a very powerful thing. It’s how a 21-year old, with no prior exposure whatsoever, can suddenly amass a strong cult of followers and sell 115,000 copies of her album in one week with only four previously released songs to her name and a lack of public exposure or coverage. In an age of predominant digital media consumption, a musician ascending to fame through the means of Tumblr and Twitter shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. Yet as the train barreled through the station, its passengers were left disappointed. It had traveled at light-speed, but at the same time it was incredibly bumpy and poorly constructed. The train was built to crash.
Much like actual badlands, Halsey’s debut album is extremely dry and devoid of life. From the beginning, it’s clear which qualities need to be excised and which offer any hope at redemption. “Castle”, the opening track, is bogged down by its mediocre attempt at social commentary, bland trip-hop beats and monotonous vocals. Those are the overarching themes of Badlands
, as the songs following it flounder in the same way. While comparisons paint her as an amalgamation of Lana Del Rey and Lorde, she completely fails to reenact both the former’s swooning production and the latter’s dark yet luscious atmosphere, leaving us with a half-assed attempt that goes absolutely nowhere. A good pop album relies on its hooks to reel listeners in, but Halsey only manages to achieve that half the time. Either the production, vocals or lyrics let it down in the end, and it’s hard to write a good hook when there are flaws surrounding it.
couldn’t be any more inept. There’s an endless list of cringeworthy lines, poorly thought-out ideas and egregious attempts at being edgy. “New Americana” represents Halsey’s worst foray into the world of songwriting. It’s a song so atrocious that many will be surprised to discover was composed by five different people. The track critiques the pillars of American society by going straight for the jugular, “attacking” its casual use of recreational drugs, intolerance on homosexuality and extravagant lifestyle. Its lyrics are incredibly forced and come off as too try-hard, while “Americana”, “marijuana” and “Nirvana” have to be one of the most awkward set of rhymes in recent memory (as a side note, it’s highly improbable that Halsey, someone who was born five months following Kurt Cobain’s suicide and two weeks after the release of Ready to Die
, was “raised on Biggie and Nirvana”). Elsewhere, there are off-putting references to cunnilingus and snide remarks about “the patriarchy”. It’s extremely pandering to her target audience, who will undoubtedly worship every word she says because it speaks to their angsty teenaged souls. Make no mistake, Badlands
caters to a very specific group of people, the same people who brought her to where she is today.
As much as the album is riddled with flaws, it’s not all worthless. The moments where Halsey drops the pretentious act and sings from her heart are when she blooms as a musician, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t occur more often. Tracks like “Ghost”, “Roman Holiday” and “Colors” come off as a lot more personal than the vapid, banal, pseudo-edgy phoniness that is prevalent on the rest of Badlands
. It’s on these tracks that the emotion shines in her vocals, which are filled with life and passion and not monotony. Perhaps predictably, these are the songs that are the catchiest. The latter stands out as the definite highlight of the album, a tale about addiction and depression that weaves together her pained voice with bleak lyrics to form one of the best pop songs of the year.
There’s a recurring theme within Badlands
, which is that the vocals, lyrics and hooks of a song are highly variable. The inconsistency is what dooms the album in the end; as a full listen front-to-back, it’s just not enjoyable. If only the best of the best were cherry-picked into a four song EP, then perhaps the end result would have turned out differently. Halsey knows her target audience very well, and her giving them everything they’re asking for is exactly how she went from YouTube nobody to overnight star. The internet made her famous, and now she’s pandering to the people who helped her get there. Unfortunately, pandering doesn’t make for good music, and in between the awfulness of “New Americana” and the brilliance of “Colors”, there’s a fine line right down the middle that serves as the mean of all the album’s qualities.