An internet phenomenon, New Jersey's Ashley Frangipane, aka Halsey, parlayed their over 16,000 YouTube subscribers into a record deal with Astralwerks at age 18, a deal based primarily around their 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 their D.I.Y. music is still apparent, though they did collaborate here with a handful of like-minded producers including Lido, the Futuristics, and Son Lux, who helped flesh out their 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 their soulful voice that sounds like Björk with vocal fry. On "Castle," they sing "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 their mouth shut is the last thing Halsey plans to do. As they proclaim 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 their content at every turn, musing with blithe emotion about their sexuality and creative independence. They also have a knack for singling out little generational touchstones that lend their songs an anthemic quality. On "New Americana," their vocals double-tracked like the children's chorus on Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," they sing, "We are the new Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana." Interestingly, while their noir-ish, older-than-their-years image has drawn comparisons to contemporaries like Lana Del Rey and Lorde (and yes, there are similarities) musically, they have 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.
(Digital Download - Astralwerks / EMI / Virgin / Virgin EMI #)
Review by Matt Collar