The story behind Halsey’s third album begins in October of 2018, mere months after the final single was lifted from her second album. No one expected it, but Halsey announced a new single called “Without Me”, which would prove to be Halsey’s cathartic attempt at confronting her turbulent relationship with G-Eazy. This unexpected and solitary single would go on to become her first #1 and biggest hit single to date, and she could have easily followed this with a rushed album. However, instead she spent the next year or so putting together her third album, jettisoning the feminist tilt into alternative rock “Nightmare” in the process. Manic was eventually dated for 2020, and many found themselves curious about the sound that would take shape on the album, as it seemed Halsey had no desire to simply emulate the trendy trap-influenced rock sound others found success with.
The album begins with “Ashley”, a song given the title of Halsey’s real name as she opens the album with a missive, confronting her connection between her artistic persona and her own psyche and establishing the project as an immersive peek into her inner world whilst functioning as a warning that Halsey may grow weary with exploring her traumas for the sake of art. Utilizing a soundbite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from the character of Clementine (as played by Kate Winslet), she establishes that she is divesting all responsibility of being the band-aid to someone else’s problem, acknowledging that she herself has her own issues. This leads into the similarly titled “clementine”, which boasts a sparser sound than that of its predecessor, and allows Halsey to acknowledge her own personal flaws and her own contradictory nature. Here, she opens up to a potential partner to accept her as she is yet insists that she is self-sufficient, and uses a separate vocal take in the background to illustrate the different aspects of her personality. “Graveyard”, which functionally served as the album’s second single, picks up the pace with rapid-fire claps in the production as she depicts a toxic codependence on someone determined to follow the path of self-destruction, leading her to her own in the process. Her collaborator Jon Bellion’s influence on the song is fully present though Halsey takes command of the song in a way that it never feels like someone else could have sung it, likely due to her own strong presence in the lyricism as well as the personal touches her vocal performance lends to the song, including a gasp in the song’s bridge and the way the song’s racing pace makes it feel like she is indeed speeding to follow her lover to the depths below. She takes a definitive turn to country on “You Should Be Sad”, where she weaponizes her songwriting to deliver a savage takedown of a past lover who proved unfaithful, and used her precise vocal performance here in a similar manner — the pity filled lyrics in the chorus are dripping in sarcasm, her critiques of her ex-lover are given in a nonchalant and straightforward manner and when she puts them on trial, delivering her summations on their behaviors, she sings with a biting conviction. “Forever … (is a long time)” begins brightly as Halsey finds herself falling in love again after a bad relationship. However, in the middle of the track, things take a turn both sonically and lyrically as she begins her doubt her ability to sustain a relationship, with vocal modulation on the song’s outro serving to punctuate the sense of doom introduced into her thoughts.
“Dominic’s Interlude” sees Halsey draft Dominic Fike in to expound on the themes introduced in the previous track, as he takes an outsider look on the burgeoning relationship between her and her lover. He notices the flaws in their relationship that neither party is willing to acknowledge as yet. The song also serves a bridge from the previous track and flows perfectly into the following track, “I Hate Everybody”, where Halsey confronts her own insecurities and how they influence her relationships. She addresses her willingness to allow her view of herself to be defined through the lens of how her lover views her, seeking to learn how to love herself by finding emotionally unavailable people to fall in love with her. The track is an obvious culmination of the previous three and the production suitably builds to a dramatic crescendo at the final chorus. She goes full-out rocker on “3am”, which opens on a distorted ringing phone as she finds herself desperately calling her loved ones for validation in the aftermath of getting drunk. The song feels like a throwback to the days when Avril Lavigne ruled airwaves, though Halsey bemoans the fact that she has to get love over the phone as relationships haven’t worked out for her in person and it ends with a voicemail from John Mayer, setting the stage up for “Without Me”. As one of her biggest hits, “Without Me” was Halsey’s first break from her persona-driven music to deliver an authentic lament on her failed relationship with G-Eazy. The song sees Halsey weaving in a trap influence she hadn’t used before, leaning into R&B as she takes her now-ex to task for cheating on her and enjoying the pedestal she placed him upon, partially blaming herself for doing so. Her tone in the chorus is sufficiently mocking and makes for a song where she strikes the right note between confrontational and vulnerable given the circumstances, and as a result, the indelible smash it has proven to be. “Finally // Beautiful Stranger” sees Halsey return to the country influence she flaunted earlier in the album, as she finds love again in a healthier form. She lets go of her inhibitions and returns to an optimistic outlook towards a potential new relationship, aided by the dreamy but stripped-back production of the song which allows her to build a raw but innately romantic mood. “Alanis’ Interlude” sees Halsey duet with feminist alternative legend Alanis Morissette to deliver an ode to the female body and to celebrate Halsey’s attraction to women, especially in the context of her being bisexual. The production throws it back enough to 90s alt-rock without sounding dated, giving both Halsey and Alanis a shared element for both of them to shine — Alanis’s wailing gives the impression of a mantra being repeated as Halsey sings earnestly.
“Killing Boys” opens with a clip from Jennifer’s Body, as Halsey returns to vengeance mode as she expresses a desire to get revenge on her ex. She details the manner in which she’d like to exact punishment on him, allowing plucked strings and brooding synths to build a mood of danger to complement her near murderous state. She enlists Suga of BTS, with whom she collaborated in 2019, for the album’s final guest spot on “Suga’s Interlude”. Suga’s verses couple with Halsey’s chorus over a gentle and contemplative melody where they both question their love of music and whether the obstacles they have faced in their careers have been worth the success. “More” opens solely with her voice as she ponders upon the miscarriages she has experienced, and how they have only furthered her desire to meet her potential future child. She opens up about her resulting struggles with her faith and public battle with endometriosis, building the melody off the heartbeat from a sonogram and adding a lullaby-like music-box flourish to make it clear the song is about her desire to be a mother. On “Still Learning”, she borrows elements from tropical house to express her ongoing journey in self-acceptance and coming to terms with where she is in life. She talks about how being famous has affected potential relationships and how public perceptions of her are different from the reality of her life. The production here is the most club-ready but the repeated backing vocals don’t complete the initial thought (“To love my”), as if the concept of loving herself itself isn’t fully complete in her mind the way the song suggests. The album finishes off with “929”, which opens with Halsey confirming it’s a direct reference to the time and date she was born. It’s a turn towards a folksier element, where she allows her thoughts to be sung freely, with little attention paid to formatting it as a song. She regurgitates most of the themes and insecurities she delved into with more substance on other cuts on the album, confesses jokily to lying about the time she was born (3 minutes earlier) and forgives herself for the lie, providing a quick metaphor for her own coming to terms with who she is as an individual and serving as a good encapsulation of the album’s material in one song.
Manic as an album sees Halsey leapfrogging between more genres than she has before and often times, the album’s sound can feel unfocused and scattered but whether by design or not, it works. The fragmentation of the album operates as a microcosm of the state of Halsey’s mind, as she works through her past experiences and attempts to find herself in a healthier psychological space. Her lyricism has undoubtedly improved as she continues to prove why she is one of the better female songwriters in today’s pop music climate. Halsey is almost always up to the challenge vocally and has no problem conveying the emotions she pours into her often highly-personal material. It’s a bold effort that isn’t afraid to showcase its creator at moments when she is unlikable, frightened, depressed and joyful. Overall, though past albums may have felt more cohesive or appealing in terms of sound, Manic is the necessary next step for Halsey as an individual and artist.