Halsey’s second full-length studio album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is the sound of a restless search for self, made literal by constantly traveling on tour. Like many musicians who achieve fame with a first album and are then faced with the need to make a second, Halsey is searching for her true place in the pop landscape, and trying out different stylistic wigs to see how she looks in them. The hairstyle metaphor is literal in the “Now or Never” video — a gender-swapped tribute to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, shot in Mexico City and starring Halsey as Romeo, with long blue tresses that get symbolically chopped off at the end. “Now or Never” is her play for big (or bigger) radio stardom, sailing through the airwaves and landing as satisfyingly as an arrow. Her cowriter on the song is Starrah, who also cowrote Rihanna’s “Needed Me”; the result is just as much of a visceral earworm as “Needed Me,” and like that song, it sounds like a snake slithering down a Gothic castle’s spiral staircase.
The rest of the album sees Halsey working with big pop producers like Ricky Reed (Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty”), Benny Blanco (Katy Perry’s right-hand man), and Cashmere Cat. It sounds at times like an indie director working with a big budget for the first time. Halsey’s grip on her aesthetic has always been strong; now she has the chance to project it onto a giant screen.
Throughout Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, the 22-year-old star searches for home in other realms and comfort in other people while trying to resist the pull toward old places and paramours. It’s heavy with the kind of jet lag you accumulate on a long, fruitful trip — half-awake interludes, psychedelic-level moments of joy and depression. The album is tonally dark, but still hooky, and I got excited thinking about the baby goths who will hear themselves in Halsey. Pop gets identified with youth, and youth with effervescence, but anyone who's been young knows that being young is miserable. For many if not most people, one's early twenties are less about a sense of endless possibility than the constant threat of failure — of relationships, ambition, and good intentions. The best youthfully effervescent pop right now is made by 31-year-old Carly Rae Jepsen. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is more in line with the gothic stylings of The Weeknd, whom Halsey opened for in 2015. “Eyes Closed” is like a female response to The Weeknd’s “The Hills” (which makes a modicum of sense, because he cowrote it).
Migos’ Quavo, who's been stretching his solo sea legs with guest verses on DJ Khaled's "I'm the One," Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” and Liam Payne’s “Strip That Down,” among others, duets with Halsey on “Lie.” Her introduction of Chamber-Pop Quavo to the world is a blessing — call him Sir Quavious. “Lie” is a different kind of conversational confrontation between soon-to-be-exes than “Closer,” her hit 2016 single with The Chainsmokers. Over ringing piano, she sings, “I gave you the messiest head, you give me the messiest head.” Quavo’s response (“You talk about your head game / I know that it’s fire flame / Your mouth make a hurricane”) is sort of hilarious over the somber production, but it also makes the song feel like a genuine back-and-forth between two people who are not exactly sure what to say to each other anymore.
The lyrical influence of ’00s emo appears throughout — Halsey is anything but afraid of a theatrical moment. There are lots more strings, too, lending a film-soundtrack vibe to much of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. Strings are the instrument best suited to melodrama, musically representing the extremes that go with experiencing strong emotions. (There’s a reason we say something sad or moving “plucks at the heartstrings” and not that it “blows on the heart-horn.”) And now that Lana Del Rey has relocated to Hollywood and gotten happy, Halsey is the premiere pop representative of melancholy Brooklyn babies.
“Walls Could Talk” is 2000s-TRL-pop revival-core — it sounds like peak Britney Spears, to the point that it's begging for Wade Robson–style aggressive choreography. “Bad at Love” is an “88 Lines About 44 Women”–style list of the lovers Halsey has met along the way and the reasons it didn’t work out with each. There's a “boy back home in Michigan,” a Jersey boy who “wants [her] in the kitchen with a dinner plate,” a “girl with California eyes” and a coke problem, and a London girl who’s just as cool, busy, and scared to commit as she is. “Walls Could Talk” and (on the deluxe edition) “Don’t Play” are both produced by Norwegian rapper Lido, who worked on Chance the Rapper’s “Same Drugs.” He is the lone production holdover from Halsey’s first album, 2015's platinum Badlands, and it’s clear why: The collaborations with Lido are the chilly yet intimate heart of the album. Lido’s production style sometimes sounds like big-room IDM, with soft mechanical clatters and organic clacks grinding up against coruscant synths. Their chemistry as artist and producer is palpable on their tracks; it’s the album’s other love story.
“Strangers,” her duet with Fifth Harmony's Lauren Jauregui, is produced by Greg Kurstin — the indie-pop guy from the The Bird and the Bee who crossed over into mainstream pop production with tracks like Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” and Adele’s “Hello.” It's the perfect summer single for that road trip to San Junipero. “Strangers” is a glimpse of a lighter Halsey who nonetheless digs her nails deep into the intersecting currents of connection and isolation that define one-night stands: “We’re not lovers / We’re just strangers / With the same damn hunger / To be touched, to be loved, to feel anything at all.”
On the album's final track, “Hopeless,” produced by Cashmere Cat, Halsey addresses a vocaloid chorus of Halseys, using the Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” technique also employed recently by Bon Iver. It’s a final reflection of the greater theme of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom: the multitudinousness of being alone.