It’s been two years since Halsey stormed the pop scene with her debut album Badlands, and she returned to the scene two weeks ago with her second full-length release, hopeless fountain kingdom. As much of a juggernaut as she started off as, that’s a hard reputation to maintain, which begs the question: Will hopeless keep her in the spotlight? Though I can’t speak for how the population at large feels, the indie-pop singer-songwriter’s sophomore release is anything but a slump.
Framed within a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story, hopeless is a concept album about “two people who want to be in love so badly, they’re willing to change themselves for their love,” Halsey said in an interview with iHeartRadio. The Romeo and Juliet parallel starts off very heavy-handed in intro track “The Prologue,” in which Halsey reads the prologue of the Shakespeare play, but by no means is it a tired retelling of the age-old love story. Rather, it creatively expands on the compelling songwriting the 22-year-old funneled into her first release.
The album does primarily rest upon a love story, starting with a taste of lover’s remorse in the percussion-driven second track “100 Words.” However, the album more strongly centers around a bit of a one-sided love. “Eyes Closed” questions what ended a past relationship and imagines them still being together while trying to move on, a biting pessimism to the track as Halsey sings, “But he’ll never stay / They never do.” Lead single “Now Or Never” looks at the internals of a failing relationship, acting as an ultimatum to a seemingly apathetic partner among a slow beat and electronically modified backing vocals in the choruses, and “Lie,” which features a guest spot by Quavo of the hip hop group Migos, follows along similar lines, melismatically pleading for an estranged significant other not to tell her that they’ve fallen out of love.
Halsey has consistently tackled confessional love songs and melodic reflection, but “Sorry” takes it in a new direction, removing the beat entirely in a stripped-down piano apology that has Halsey owning up to her relationship-ending flaws as she belts out, “Sorry that I can’t believe / That anybody ever really starts to fall in love with me.” She comes clean about her flaws even further on “Bad At Love,” which tells the tale of two different failed loves in its verses among belted declarations in the chorus that show off her vocal talents.
That track, as well as “Strangers,” are the first love songs by the bisexual artist to explicitly discuss love between two women, and the latter turns out as one of the album’s most powerful tracks. The beat-heavy song features guest vocalist Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony, another bisexual singer who acts as an effective foil in the story of a failing love.
The album does take a break from romance in some tracks, like “Alone,” which is a piano- and brass-driven anthem of isolation and self-deprecation. It also does so in penultimate track “Devil In Me,” a fearful track about struggles with mental illness, something Halsey has been vocal about in the past. The dark track shines through its repeated cries in the choruses, backed by vocals from Sia, emphasizing the fear and turmoil Halsey feels.
Capping off the concept album is “Hopeless,” a grim but introspective track bearing a fitting degree of finality, featuring producer Cashmere Cat. Minimalist instrumentally, it focuses primarily around a sequence of four bass notes, accented by higher synths as it picks up. The lyrics center around a look back on a failed relationship, unable to figure out exactly how they feel about it; with a Billy Joel reference, Halsey reflects, “‘Cause you know the good die young, but so did this / And so it must be better than I think it is.” Distorted vocalizations bridge between the chorus and second verse, then come in again to lead into the album’s bitter hope of “I hope hopeless changes over time.”
A deluxe release of the album is available through digital means alone, though if you want to get it on CD, you can buy the deluxe tracks individually. As with Badlands, the deluxe tracks are placed within the tracklisting rather than merely tacked on at the end, which is a strong argument for getting them if you really want the complete experience. With that said, the deluxe version only includes three extra tracks, none of which are the best tracks on hopeless. “Heaven In Hiding” is a beat-driven, synth-filled song of confliction about a secret relationship, whereas “Don’t Play” is an energetic and confrontational R&B piece with music box-like instrumentals. “Angel On Fire” is the most compelling of the three, a song that dramatically and poignantly cries of an Icarus-like fall from the spotlight. If you’re dedicated to hearing the concept album in its entirety or are a Halsey superfan, you’ll definitely want to pick them all up, but otherwise the base 13 tracks will certainly satisfy you well enough, and you can always go back for the tracks individually after the fact if you change your mind.
Halsey had a lot of expectations to live up to, as many artists do with a sophomore release, but with hopeless, it’s clear that she has plenty of stories to tell and a lot of talent to express, and she’s not planning to stop doing that anytime soon. If Badlands wasn’t your cup of tea or you’re in the crowd that feels Halsey is manufactured and inauthentic, I’m not sure anything this second album does will change your mind. But if you’re in the market for some synth-pop full of confliction and lost love, hopeless fountain kingdom won’t disappoint.