Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss Halsey’s sophomore album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, her conceptual artistry, and her musical evolution.
Featured here are Kelly Wynne, Kelly McCafferty, Natalie Harmsen, Christine Costello, Urooj Ali Rizvi, Lucas Koprowski, Shannon Ruzgys, and Watts
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (HFK) is framed as a concept album. Do you feel a consistent storyline was achieved?
Kelly W: I think there are a few parts of this album that really cater to the idea of a concept album. For one, “The Prologue” explains the story, and an interlude-type piece like “Good Mourning” serves as a good transitional piece between story points. I think when this album is portrayed visually both in videos and in concert, there is a larger potential for a story-driven performance. The pieces are there, it now depends on how Halsey’s theatrical and performance creativity kick in. I have confidence she has a larger idea than just the album.
Watts: I think a consistent storyline was achieved. Halsey takes the audience on a journey through her relationship problems; both with herself, her lovers, and possible acquaintances. Her honesty is woven in each song as the album starts off with identifying her struggles. By the end of the album, she attracts pity for her disability to maintain a healthy relationship. Through internal doubts and external fears, Halsey gives us a hopeless autobiography of personal and social relationship battle scars.
Natalie: I feel that there was a good idea behind the storyline, but it just doesn’t flow the way I wanted to. I don’t know how to explain it. To be honest though, concept albums are always challenging. When I think of a good concept album, this just isn’t up there with the greats for me.
Shannon: With my first listen through I felt a little bit lost as to what exactly the story she was trying to tell was. On my second listen and third listen through, I started to pick up on the storyline a bit more, but as a whole I found it kind of fell short as a concept album. It’s almost as if she knew that she wanted to do a concept album before she had even picked a concept, and it all felt like she was trying to shove a bunch of puzzle pieces together that simply did not fit.
Christine: I felt the storyline was weak from the beginning. Halsey clearly saw the niche that is concept albums and the lack thereof in the popular music industry. Personally, I blame the extinction of concept albums on the evolution of online streaming. People are far too lazy to listen to an album through when the hot single can be streamed at the touch of a button. Thus, any storyline or plot is lost. However the extinction of concept albums is another issue for another day.
It seems HFK set out to become a concept album before it had any concept. This shows in the story’s inconsistency and lack of development. Even in the leading music video for Now Or Never; high budget effects, bright colours and aesthetic cinematography serve to disguise HFK‘s many flaws. There’s an intro, an interlude, a bit of talking and a few characters. It adheres to the formula of a concept album, but without any clear story or concept.
Lucas: Maybe I missed something, but what kind of storyline other than being a confused woman is there? It sounds like the concept could have been compacted into a single track with a lot more punch rather than recovering the same topic repeatedly for forty-minutes straight.
Urooj: The major appeal of Halsey’s new album was the intriguing concept behind it– it’s no secret that Halsey’s got a thing for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. One of her tattoos quotes a line from the play, “These violent delights have violent ends.” ‘hopeless fountain kingdom‘ unravelled on the internet with plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding it but what really stood out to me was how carefully constructed the concept and the characterisation was. Twitter accounts for Halsey’s characters were made (something similar has been undertaken by the creators of Skam, a Norweigian TV show wherein all characters have their own Instagram accounts with posts etc, creating a credible (sur)reality for the audience).
However, I feel like the concept falls flat entirely because of the lyrics and the music on the album. There is no continuity to the sequence of songs at all– nothing common that binds the album together, really. While the Prologue quotes Shakespeare directly and has an interesting verse very similar in sound to the Japanese House, all that follows is thoroughly disappointing. I could not discern any cohesion or a string of thought that carried itself through the album. Keeping aside the badly-written lyrics, even the music (backing tracks, instruments, sound etc) feels contrived, heavily borrowed, commercialised even and despite the lovely violins on ‘Walls Could Talk’, the whole attempt at a concept album fails quite miserably.
Kelly M: I agree that “The Prologue” and “Good Mourning” create the sense of a concept album. In addition, a lot of the songs do follow the theme of almost love leading to eventual heartbreak, which is a consistent concept. So on those levels, yes I feel it follows a concept format, however I don’t think there is one consistent storyline being told throughout.
How do you feel HFK compares to Badlands, Halsey’s debut album? Has HFK proven Halsey’s ability to progress as a serious artist?
Christine: No. HFK is a big step down from Badlands. There was a versatility in Badlands that gave each song its own identity and aided Halsey in establishing herself as a ‘serious artist’. The sound in HFK is perhaps the only consistent thing within the album; it’s the same, repetitive pop mantra, track after track. The only thing distinguishing these from the multitude of similar chart tracks is Halsey’s instantly identifiable voice. Other than that, HFK is simply bland. Badlands, however had that edge of personal experiences and raw emotion that led to its worldwide success. Its relatable lyrics and honesty were admirable. HFK has replaced these with a clichéd, fictitious love story or two unfortunate one-dimensional characters characters.
Kelly W: Badlands, in my opinion, was timid and humble. It was honest and lyrically raw, showcasing a large array of emotion and vulnerability. HFK is powerful. It’s loud and extravagant. It’s a bit out of left field for Halsey, coming from someone so musically open. I feel there are moments on HFK that reflect Badlands, but at the end of the day, HFK feels like a very confrontational facade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different. I think Halsey has definitely progressed with her own concepts on this album, but I also feel many are borrowed. There are moments that truly impress and there are also moments which sound like she was trying too hard (enter Quavo.)
Watts: I think HFK is a storytelling album. A chance for Halsey to get out of her “alternative popstar” skin and dive right into thoughtful, intelligent songwriting. Her lyrics matured greatly as she moved away from trying to make a few hit singles, and instead focused on a cohesive album of songs. I think Halsey can be considered one of the best songwriters in the industry as HFK flexes its honesty and transparency in a skillful manner. HFK is not for standard pop fans looking for an album to groove to. The album is meant for dissection and relation for anyone going through tough relationships…which is everyone at some point!
Urooj: I would easily call HFK a commercialised, badly-written pop debacle in comparison to Halsey’s Badlands. The strength of Badlands lay in Halsey’s honesty, despite the conceptual flair. There is a heavy superficiality in HFK that just does not sit well with me at all and I really, really, really liked Halsey’s music. I really don’t HFK proves Halsey’s ability to progress at all — if this is a step forward at all, it’s a step in the wrong direction, towards the wrong sound. While I understand the evolution of artists and their music undergoing change, the mark of a good musician or artist is consistency– a measure of honesty that ensures that the work produced can be different but not contrived. HFK buys into raging pop sound with hopelessly bad lyrics (see “100 Letters” where the chorus is horridly tiresome and repetitive, or “Now or Never” which is one of the most mindless songs I’ve heard this year). One need only look at bands like Bring Me the Horizon or artists like Lorde to assess constructive evolution — while their music certainly changes, they can be clearly identified in their music, they’re still honest with us.
Whether it’s the terrible attempt at recreating the Weekend’s vibe in “Eyes Closed,” or a song disturbingly reminiscent of Britney Spears or ‘Don’t Play’ which comes off as a poor imitation of Beyonce (despite it’s very catchy tune), HFK has no original content to shock us with.
What defined Halsey and set her apart was her powerful (and often over-quoted) writing — HFK comes from an artist who penned songs like “Hurricane” and “Hold Me Down,” and it feels like total a rip-off. There seems to be no intimacy in this album at all, no honesty. It rings hollow and empty, a bunch of forgettable songs thrown together for the sake of it. It feels as though she has distanced herself from the music she’s making, buying into what is popular instead of really carving out a niche for herself in the alternative-indie scene. HFK is a badly made album and I can see no seriousness in it’s creation at all, it is a thorough disappointment compared to the electric invitation that was Badlands. Solid both in lyrical and musical content, Badlands offered some very raw, very potent song– nothing forgettable. HFK, to be honest, has nothing to offer at all.
Natalie: I feel Halsey set out to rock the boat and step up from Badlands and she definitely did that with this. I think at points, her voice gets a bit lost in the work from her collaborators. For example, on her song “Eyes Closed” which The Weeknd co-wrote, I only hear what sounded like a leftover song from him, nothing original for her. I think she’s taken a step in the right direction, but I still don’t see much growth here.
Lucas: This album has the same concept as her debut release: pick on the emotions of teenage girls and profit heavily. Badlands had a sound similar to what would happen if Lorde and Lana Del Rey’s music had a baby out of wedlock. Halsey has an unrecognizable voice to any other popstar on the market. I remember when I first heard the Chainsmokers’ song “Closer,” I couldn’t recognize it was Halsey until I read the feature spot on the single’s cover. Putting Halsey on top of synths and giving her Chainsmokers lyrics doesn’t change anything. That is what she did with this album. She has become the female equivalent to the masters of modern electro-pop. Sure, she isn’t electro, but she sure cornered the market in similar style with her sophomore release. There is not a drop of ambition to be found.
Kelly M: I think HFK is a natural progression from Badlands. Some songs, such as “Sorry,” “Now or Never,” “Bad at Love,” and “100 Letters,” definitely feel as though they could have come from Badlands (in a good way). Lyrically, I think she has moved forward and has continued with the ability to really round out a song and make it have purpose.
Shannon: When Badlands first came out, it was all I listened to for days upon days and still to this day is one of my favourite albums. To be completely honest, I felt let down by this album. By no means would I say HFK is a bad album, but compared to Badlands it just fell short. For me it felt like Halsey’s vocals were lost in the theatrics of the instrumentals. Every single song seemed to have been sung at the same pitch, and I kept waiting for something different and unfortunately that never happened. For me, every single song on Badlands told a story and brought something unique to the album whereas with HFK I actually found it hard to distinguish one song from the next. Her storytelling with HFK seemed to be half of what Halsey has proven herself capable of with Badlands and overall I felt myself wanting more on nearly every level.
What do you consider a standout song on the album?
Kelly W: “100 Letters” is one of my favorites because it really has the classic Halsey feel. I think lyrically and musically it’s interesting and unique. “Bad At Love” is another one that sounds like a very natural transition from Badlands. “Walls Could Talk” is also a favorite of mine. It’s clearly an ode to early 2000s pop, but there’s something nostalgic yet current about it. I think Halsey did the borrowed idea right here. “Devil In Me” also has a really appealing tune. “Sorry” is also very special in being the only taste of full vulnerability on the album and it’s done with tasteful, unique lyrics.
Watts: “Heaven in Hiding” is definitely the standout song on the album. Halsey croons all over an upbeat pop instrumental, resulting in an epic, curtains-opening masterpiece. The dark synthesizers under her voice keep her honest and as the beat prevails, so does her pitch. Halsey will gives us her all on this tune and I think it will be the standout song on the album. I can’t wait to see her sing this one live!!
Shannon: I would say that my favourite song would be “100 letters.” Out of all of the songs on the album, I found that this one reminded me most of what I liked the most about Badlands with captivating lyrics and an enticing story. In fact, this was the only song from the entire album that I liked enough to save on my daily playlist.
Christine: “Walls Could Talk.” This reminded me of Destiny’s Child and every other good thing about powerful girl bands and the ’90s/’00s R&B. In other words, it’s different to what we’re listening to right now and what’s fresh is always interesting. One of the few tracks on HFK that can survive as a standalone without the ‘concept’ as a track. Short mention to Don’t Play too. The second half (After Good Mourning) of this album is certainly stronger than part one.
Lucas: The one song I wish I could get out of my head is “Walls Could Talk.” It sounds like something out of the 2000’s, and I can’t get the pain of not knowing what song it sounds like out of my mind. It’s an aching sort of standout. It reminds me of Britney Spears, but I don’t think it sounds like one of her tracks.
Urooj:If I really had to pick a song, it would be “Sorry.” It’s the only song on the album that feels genuine. It’s also the only song where we can really focus on Halsey’s voice; another definitive aspect of her that has been subsumed, in HFK, by the bad electronic music. Lyrically, it is relatively stronger than the others — it has some emotive value and comes with a sense of loss attached to it, true to the conceptual idea behind the album that was supposed to focus on a pair of star-crossed lovers in an alternate universe. It’s the only song that I just might not forget.
Kelly M: “Heaven In Hiding” is a nice standout. The lyrics are incredibly poetic, and the music paired with these lyrics matches perfectly. Together, they come together to create the feeling the song is trying to portray, which I feel is a step up and a stand out for Halsey.
Natalie: I can’t pick! Not sure.
Do you have a favorite lyric or set of lyrics?
Kelly W: “I don’t let him touch me anymore. I said I’m not something to butter up and taste when you get bored.” – “100 Letters”
“I can sometimes treat the people that I love like jewelry.” – “Sorry”
Natalie: “This is heaven in hiding.” There is a sense of genuineness.
Watts: “Eyes Closed” speaks of moving on from a sad heartbreak onto something new. However, the dark and honest lyrics make the song very real and easy to relate to. She also talks about how the people in her relationships keep leaving her. I almost choked up listening to this for the first time, it’s so sad!!
And if I keep my eyes closed, he looks just like you
But he’ll never stay, they never do
And if I keep my eyes closed, he feels just like you
But you been replaced, I’m face to face with someone new.
Christine: None. I guess all the good lyrics were used up on Badlands.
Shannon: I’m kind of upset how long it took me to find a set of lyrics that stood out to me, whereas with Badlands I could never even pick one. Anyway my favorite lyrics would have to be on “100 Letters”:
I almost gave you everything
And now the whole thing’s finished
and I can’t stop wishing
That I never gave you anything
Lucas: The silence at the end of the album was awesome. No lyrics hit with me.
Urooj: I think the only part that I liked, in terms of writing, was the verse written for “The Prologue,” just after the Shakespeare quote (it has the barest glimmer of Halsey’s writing strength, a lot of vivid imagery and lovely metaphors)… I’m actually rather upset by how bad HFK turned out to be, for me.
I am a child of a
Money hungry, prideful country
Grass is green and it’s always sunny
Hands so bloody, tastes like honey
I’m finding it hard to leave.
Kelly M: “This is heaven in hiding.” I love these lyrics because they are raw and true, yet incredibly unique. The lyrics are saying that sometimes the best things are right in front of you. It is an incredibly common phrase twisted into poetic words, which gives it just that much more meaning. Lyrics in music give artists the opportunity to say something that has been said a thousand times, but to say it in a way that has never been said before. These lyrics achieve that flawlessly.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is out now via Astralwerks
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