An internet phenomenon, New Jersey's Ashley Frangipane, aka Halsey, parlayed her over 16,000 YouTube subscribers into a record deal with Astralwerks at age 18, a deal based primarily around her moody, synth-heavy single "Ghost." Two years later, Badlands finds the 20-year-old budding pop sensation delivering a set of songs that sound a lot like that fateful first single. Which isn't a bad thing. The sound that defined her D.I.Y. music is still apparent, though she did collaborate here with a handful of like-minded producers including Lido, the Futuristics, and Son Lux, who helped flesh out her highly personal songs into even more dramatic, sonically dense recordings. On the surface, Badlands is all chilly atmosphere, thanks to a bevy of thick bass tones, pulsing synthesizers, and rattlesnake percussion loops. It's a goth throwback that brings to mind Danny Lohner's work with Nine Inch Nails. However, underneath that icy landscape, Halsey burns with a feminist confidence, spitting out lyrics with her soulful voice that sound like Björk with vocal fry. On "Castle," she sings "I'm headed straight for the castle/They've got the kingdom locked up/And there's an old man sitting on a throne they're saying, 'I should probably keep my pretty mouth shut.'" Of course, it's clear from the start of Badlands that keeping her mouth shut is the last thing Halsey plans to do. As she proclaims on the taut, slow-tempo jam "Hold Me Down," "My demons are begging me to open up my mouth." Thankfully, Halsey consistently brings a strong sense of self to her content at every turn, musing with blithe emotion about her sexuality and creative independence. She also has a knack for singling out little generational touchstones that lend her songs an anthemic quality. On "New Americana," her vocals double-tracked like the children's chorus on Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," she sings, "We are the new Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana." Interestingly, while her noir-ish, older-than-her-years image has drawn comparisons to contemporaries like Lana Del Rey and Lorde (and yes, there are similarities), musically, she has more in common with male-fronted acts like New York's X Ambassadors, merging dark, electronic indie with the rhythmic bump and lyrical flow of R&B. There's also something angry, literate, and youthfully defiant about Badlands that brings to mind the sneer of Garbage's Shirley Manson. Ultimately, it's all of Halsey's seemingly contradictory elements brought together that lend Badlands such a fascinating topography.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar