Smart-mouthed punk rocker Halsey had already triumphed with her two EPs when she entered the public eye in 2015. Singing alongside Justin Bieber on tour, the “New Americana” singer proved plenty able to hold her own. And on “Badlands,” her first full-length album, Halsey debuts a uniquely gritty, piercing, cinematic approach to music. The leading track, “Castle,” says it all, descending from angelic, mystical heights. Her sharp, power-hungry words are harsh and metallic, previewing her intentions to take over the world.
Halsey’s work is rich in every sense of the word. Dominated by her versatile voice, her songs are countered by a shape-shifting beat and divinely layered vocals. “Hold Me Down” releases the demons that sneak through the rest of the album. “Strange Love” is smoky, spiky, and gritty. Like many of her songs, it’s about the angry outsider. “Drive” steers right into the movies, and feels crisp and hearty, as the open California road fills Halsey’s lonely voice. Then, “Colors” takes the reins. In possibly the most thrilling ride yet, Halsey’s words are like primary colors, sliding off the palette. The song is a spinning beauty, obliterating into pure color and obsession. “Colors, Part II” is its glamorous, blurred sequel, and “Control” pries even deeper and darker. Like a prelude to a horror story, it’s sickening and contagious. Halsey’s aching voice balances between anguish and fascination, leaving us with our eyes glued to the screen.
And like the saturated pinks and blues on the cover, the images in Halsey’s songs come in technicolor. In “Hurricane,” Halsey’s captivating voice spirals out into a storm. A classic jewel, “Roman Holiday” is youthful and free, balancing Halsey’s images of demons and doom with great wonder. “Ghost” emerges from the hubris, revealing a lonely, searching voice, and “Haunting” follows suit. It begins with Halsey’s distracted, scattered voice, and she sings in a way that is methodical, obsessive. It grabs our attention and won’t let go. Her songs come in neon; they’re impossible to forget.
Her lyrical genius is unmistakable, and sometimes even political, as “New Americana” demonstrates her knife-sharp ability to twist words. Its crowning refrain, “We are the new Americana,” seems to drown out the rest of the world, poking distaste at spoiled young bluebloods. In “Coming Down,” her words flow like a storyteller’s tales. “Gasoline” is oily, slick, a drip down the drain, and “Young God” begins at the bottom of the pool Halsey describes. It carries her mocking tone and bloody rhymes into the album’s final song, the jazzy, messy “I Walk the Line.” It’s the perfect summary of a tremendous work.
We’ve survived the badlands today.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.