Ashley Frangipane is better known to the general public as her moniker Halsey, but more than that still she’ll be better recognised through her contribution to 2016’s most overplayed commercial house song: Closer. You know. The Chainsmokers one that could never be played again and would still have received more airplay than it ever deserved.
But just like every uncredited female singer chucked into a verse and chorus in an overplayed chart hit, she’s got her own back catalogue and trajectory as an artist. At 22, it’s pretty impressive that Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (stylized all lowercase, of course) is her sophomore album. It follows 2015’s Badlands, and an EP from the year before that called Room 93. Badlands was successful online and spawned a couple of singles and features on film soundtracks, but it really was her featuring on Closer that cultivated an interested in her – her tattoos and colourful haircuts and outspokenness.
The Halsey singing in Closer and the Halsey singing in Hopeless Fountain Kingdom may look similar, and they certainly have the same smoky, languid voice, but they are two very different characters. Halsey trended on social media when performing with the Chainsmokers at the 2016 VMAs, pressed against Andrew Taggart (apparently that’s what the singing clone in The Chainsmokers is called), breathlessly telling him that he looks as good as the day she met him. This is both highly unlikely and highly unlike the Halsey that Frangipane presents in interviews, Badlands, and evidently, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. It’s time to start taking young featuring artists seriously, so we may as well start with Halsey.
In The Prologue, which opens the album, Halsey invokes GCSE coursework nightmares by reciting the opening monologue from Romeo and Juliet. If this is immediately off-putting, the rest of the album might not be for you because, wait for it, it’s a concept piece. Inspired by the Shakespearian tragedy – but especially Baz Lurhmann’s iconic film – Frangipagne charts the story of a pair of starcrossed lovers, inspired by her own experiences with identity and sexuality. Within its sixteen tracks, she manages to cover a range of emotions and perspectives, switching power balances and gender pronouns between songs, but threading everything through the electronic beats of her off-kilter alternative pop.
The first half of the album is weaker than the second, but after the especially messy Lie (featuring Quavo, who’s getting everywhere at the moment), it peaks. Walls Could Talk, Bad At Love, Don’t Play, and Strangers (featuring Lauren Jauregui from Fifth Harmony), are four great tracks one after the other. In them, Halsey personifies the headstrong confidence that is older than naivety but still young enough to be cocky. Unlike her grovelling character in Closer, when she is the lead artist and writer, her chin-jutting, thumb-biting nature shines through and reminds you just who is telling the story.
Now Or Never – the lead single, falls down for me though. It’s uninspiring and disjointed, but ticks more commercial boxes than anything else on the record, and sounds the most like what most people will know her for. The video really takes the Baz Lurhmann concept seriously, with drugs, violence, and two houses both aligned in subversive countercultures, but it will be interesting to see how this maps out for the rest of the promotion. There’s been a lot of time and effort put into this, and it clearly is exactly how Frangipane envisioned it looking and sounding. For that, it wins me over, even if it is a little over the top.