Listening to Halsey’s first full-length album, Badlands, felt like I was being taken on a journey through her psyche, getting deeper the longer I kept my earphones in. It reminded me of listening to an audiobook and forgetting that it’s impossible to touch a character’s hair or hold their hand because they’re not there with you. Halsey – real name Ashley Frangipane – is a twenty-year old singer-songwriter from New Jersey. Ever since childhood, she has found joy in telling stories, which is why her songs tend to feature a plot.
The first song that Halsey released (independently online) was “Ghost” in 2012, a song which appears on Badlands and her Room 93 EP. She never expected it to be picked up by a record company, but five of them listened to it on the night of the upload. The original reason she put it up was because her friends said that if it got popular, she could make a bit of money. Of the experience, she said: “I had 24 hours to decide and the decision was very easy to make. From that day on I’ve been an artist. I didn’t have to become one, I just needed someone to show me the signs”.
Each of her songs are self-confessed autobiographies that tell stories about herself and her friends; “I grew up with friends who did drugs, and I grew up with friends who died, and it’s become my purpose I think to immortalize those people to the best of my ability”. With that in mind, it makes the already-emotional songs cut that much deeper, especially on a certain track which I am eager to discuss further down. Finally, before I immerse myself in her sound again, listen to Badlands without a certain genre in mind, all Halsey wants is for people to hear her music, whether it’s on a mainstream or alternative station, she doesn’t care. Just listen.
The first song is “Castle”, and it is suitable for an introduction. With its slow tempo and occasional choir chorus, I imagine Halsey in a flowing dress walking up a long aisle that begins and ends when the song does. In her words, it’s written from the perspective of someone in the music industry who is about to make it to the “castle”, a metaphor for fame or success. She sings, “I’m headed straight for the castle / They wanna make me their queen”. In other words, she is going to be made into an idol by others. That’s what the choir represents: it has religious undertones but also simulates a mass of people.
I’m going to skip to the sixth track now, the one that has possessed me recently: “Colors”. To describe it in one sentence, it’s like watching watercolours bleed into one another on a white sheet of paper to create something picturesque. The narrative follows a troubled guy, someone who is “ripped at every edge but you’re a masterpiece”. She touches on his backstory, which makes the listener feel a deeper sense of empathy for him. As the title suggests, the song is full of colours as vibrant as her hair, mostly notably blue which is Halsey’s “creative colour”.
The oft-repeated lines are: “Everything is blue / His hands, his pills, his jeans” which regularly gets changed to: “Everything is grey / His hair, his smoke, his dreams”. Blue and grey are colours, clearly, but they are also words to describe when someone is feeling sad, which is relevant here. The only mention of a lack of colour is in the line “now he’s so devoid of colour he don’t know what it means” which is one of the most poignant lines. The lyrics pull the listener in gently, then we are led into the chorus by the crash of a cymbal and a louder bit of bass, which only lasts for a second or two, but it’s enough to make sure that we’re paying attention to his plight.
The first thing that struck me about “Haunting” was the inventive composition at the beginning: the line “keep on haunting (me)” is broken into several sections that, on first listen, sound like nonsensical electronic sounds. There is quite a bit of echo, which is atmospheric and supports the image of someone being haunted or possessed (both of which Halsey sings about).
The story here is something that a lot of people may relate to: being unable to get over someone. Not even that, but Halsey has “got a boyfriend now, and he’s made of gold”, yet the other person keeps “haunting” her so much so that it makes no difference in the end. She tries to get rid of his influence, but can’t. The song maintains a steady rhythm, so the focus is undoubtedly on the lyrics, as with “Colors”.
It’s not hard to believe that Halsey has been telling stories since childhood. Rather than being at the forefront, the music acts as an extra layer that is guiding us on the journey, like waves beneath a boat. Her voice has been compared to Lana Del Rey’s and Lorde’s; it’s captivating, and the sounds used in each song feel unique and have clearly been composed with the greatest care. Halsey’s Badlands is out now via Astralwerks, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Shanade McConney