Review: Halsey – Manic

In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Halsey name-dropped The Wonder Years as being an influence on her newest album, Manic. It makes sense when you think about it. Manic is a deeply personal work of art about Halsey herself – her demons, her fears, her frustrations, her trappings. Just as we’ve become accustomed to Dan Campbell writing the kind of lyrics that are so visceral and specific as to paint a very particular picture in your mind, Halsey has fully and beautifully captured this moment in her life. And while it may be highly specific to her own story, you might be surprised as to how easy you can find your own within.

Halsey Manic album cover

You can buy or stream Manic on Apple Music.

Halsey has come a long way since her viral breakthrough into the zeitgeist during the middle portion of the last decade. By the time “New Americana” hit the internet in the summer of 2015, she was lauded as the countercultural pop spokesperson for a new generation. Leaning into the dark synthpop stylings that have now become fully mainstream, Halsey excelled in making great pop songs that could strike a nerve. But one thing she hadn’t done across her first two releases (Badlands and hopeless fountain kingdom) was create a truly great album.

Ultimately, having that notch on your belt doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but there’s something about a cohesive collection of songs that thread together a story. You know it when you hear it, and it can be heard clearly and painfully on Manic.

Throughout the album, Halsey sheds any preconceived notions that listeners might have about her music. Gone are the deep bass lines and buzzing synthesizers. In are quiet tracks with space to breathe, accompanied by acoustic guitars and piano interludes. Gone are the thematic elements of fantasy and grandeur. In are the musings of someone alone in a room, deep in self-reflection, working toward recovery.

On opening track “Ashley”, Halsey sets the tone for what’s to come, quietly reflecting on her past persona and where she stands today: “Took my heart and sold it out to a vision that I wrote myself / And I don’t wanna be somebody in American just fighting the hysteria / I only wanna die some days”. It’s no secret that much of Manic sifts through the fallout of her broken relationship with rapper G-Eazy, but in truth, the songs dig deeper in an effort to uncover truths about herself and how those truths impact her ability to move forward.

While “Ashley” sets the table thematically, the album itself is true to its name, oscillating wildly between genres throughout, feeling like any train of thought that each of us have ridden on many a lonely night. There are still elements of electropop present, as in last year’s single “Without Me”, but Halsey finds room to inject country (“You Should Be Sad”), rock (“3AM”), and alternative pop sounds like those found on “I Hate Everybody” and “Alanis’ Interlude” – an absolutely wonderful track with Alanis Morissette, who happens to know a thing or two about how to put the sound of picking up the pieces to tape.

Truly, there are no weak tracks on Manic, and while you may not reach for certain songs as standalones on a playlist, they all weave together perfectly in the form of an album. And it’s in those non-single moments that we are hit with some of Halsey’s more poignant and personal songwriting. Singing atop a gentle acoustic guitar on “Finally // Beautiful Stranger”, she leans into the uncertainty of leaving the past behind, singing, “Oh, we’re dancin’ in my living room, and up come my fists / And I say I’m only playing, but the truth is this / That I’ve never seen a mouth that I would kill to kiss / And I’m terrified, but I can’t resist”. 

It’s moments like this that harken back to Halsey’s statement about The Wonder Years and the scene that helped form her artistic approach. Listening to Manic is like being brought behind the curtain and realizing that there is no level of stardom or success that separates someone from the demons we all face. On “Still Learning”, she shares, “I should be living the dream / But I go home and I got no self-esteem”. 

Album closer “929” finds Halsey spilling her guts one confessional line at a time in a three-minute stream of consciousness, highlighted by the most heartbreaking moment of the album: “And I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met / But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed / And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee / And hoped that my father would finally call me”.

Still, for all of the self-loathing and questioning across Manic’s 16 tracks, Halsey consistently makes room for grace and a belief that her direction is one of growth and improvement. “I’m still learning to love myself” she confesses near the end of the album. Manic is deeply specific to its creator’s trials and struggles, yet highly relatable. Because we’re all in this together. Halsey’s willingness to be so open and transparent has resulted in an album that could very well set the tone for the next decade of pop.

4.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: New Found Glory – Resurrection

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During Chicago’s Riot Fest, Chad Gilbert took the mic midway through their set to address the frenzied crowd in the brief pause between moshing and jumping. He talked briefly about how the last year has been the worst they’ve ever been through and described it as hitting their absolute “rock bottom” as a group. It’s true; it’s been a rough year to love New Found Glory.

The departure of founding member Steve Klein from the band came as a shock, but not as much as the news of the charges against him and the brewing talk by fans on forums about the rest of the band. Without the second guitar, their sound wouldn’t be as full and the shadow looming over the neigh untouchable group disappeared slowly with the enormous gap that they put between themselves and Klein.

Resurrection isn’t just another NFG album, nor just a punk sounding title. It’s a full rebirth for a band that found themselves as low as they’d ever been, and that’s coming just a few years after writing an album (Not Without A Fight) dealing with the divorces the various members had gone through. Resurrection is true to its name; it’s a full rebirth for New Found Glory with a renewed sense of urgency and anger. The guitar is heavier, the bass is louder and the lyrics are absolutely brutal.

The songs aren’t exclusively about girls like they used to be, but this is New Found Glory at their finest, delivering the best album since Sticks and Stones. The pop is lighter, the punk is harsher and, despite the similar easycore grind, each song remains memorable. It’s the type of punk that the band has been attempting to achieve ever since the Tip of the Iceberg EP and true to the legacy that allowed them to make a near perfect Ramones Cover EP (Mania). Even with the addition of more breakdowns, it sounds like authentic New Found Glory.

The most noticeable thing about Resurrection is that it’s incredibly harsher and stronger than any of their past releases, opting for punk songs with pop elements bleeding from the vocals as opposed to the instruments themselves. Gilbert, as the sole guitarist now, grinds out ferocious power chords in hypnotically catchy rhythms complete with scratches and the metallic vibrations of the strings. Ian Grushka’s bass is a rapid assault that traces the scales. The bass is much more noticeable than on past records with an authority and weight that gives a massive energy to the songs. As usual, Cyrus Bolooki’s drumming is top notch and the standard to which the rest of the pop punk genre adheres to.

Vocalist Jordan Pundik scales the range of his voice throughout the songs and delivers one incredibly chorus after the other. The most noticeable difference is that the lyrics are much more aggressive. The album starts with lead single “Selfless” in similar vein as fan favorite “Understatement” in that it’s a rapid assault anthem of self worth and the hope for strength.

With the absence of Klein as the lyricist, it almost sounds like the band took inspiration for the more personalized lyrics of new bands like The Wonder Years. It also sets the tone for the record with the daring proclamation during the bridge of, “No I’m not gonna settle anymore, no I’m not gonna hold my tongue / If you haven’t made enemies then you never stood for anything”.

Perhaps the most startling song on the record is “The Worst Person”. It is either a direct attack on Klein to clear their view on the entire situation involving him or someone in a very similar situation who did the band wrong. The song is fueled with the rage most likely responsible for the passion and fire that makes Resurrection so intriguing and powerful while maintaining a classic structure that almost sounds like it was torn from the track list of their Self-Titled.

The track also contains the most inflammatory lyrics of the band’s career as Jordan shouts, “You hid your life away, you didn’t want them to know you were hooking up with girls in Boston / You might be the worst person I’ve ever met, I’ve ever known / You keep doing all that shit you regret, end up alone”. It is single-handedly the most aggressive and personal lyrics the band has ever written.

The entire record is a challenge and an anthem of fighting back from the brink. “One More Round” rings with a raging chorus of “One more round, kick me when I’m down, but I already won when my name rolled off your tongue” against the crunch of the guitar.

Resurrection is a comeback album that no one knew was needed. Ironically enough, the worst thing to ever happen to the band may have been just the inspiration needed to knock them to the next. Their sound hadn’t evolved terribly much over the last fifteen years, but finally sounds mature and aggressively relevant. There’s no need to focus so much on love and girls when there is so much more that needs to be tackled.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and might be slightly biased because NFG was the first band he discovered fifteen years ago. But that doesn’t matter because no one reads this lil’ bit anyway. Bwa hahahahaha!

Review: Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

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Given how well respected Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell and the rest of The Wonder Years are within the scene, it’s only natural that the front man’s debut solo album, under the pseudonym Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, highlights what helped make the band so memorable in the first place – the incredibly real lyricism.

We Don’t Have Each Other is an intense lesson in storytelling, backed by a stripped down version of the punk song writing of TWY. While it’s by no means a groundbreaking solo album, it cements the fact that Campbell is the single most prolific writer in the scene. Taking on the persona of a fictional character, Aaron West, Campbell sings aloud a novel set to music that won’t drown out the story.

Aaron West relishes in the minimalist aspect of music; simple melodies are used as a basic tool to give traction to the lyrics. Though acoustically based, an assortment of other instruments help add some much needed layers to the songs to help them feel fleshed out. “Divorce and the American South”, includes a soft, short melody that strums nakedly for four and a half minutes, accompanied only by a muted trumpet in the last few seconds as Aaron mocks himself for how much he misses his wife, lamenting that she wouldn’t even attend his funeral in his own dreams.

The opening track, “Our Apartment” feels the most complete composition on the album, with the acoustic guitar accompanied by a banjo, drums, harmonica, violin and quite possibly a few other things across a bouncy southern-tinged melody. Light hints of country find their way into the album with the steel guitar (or whatever the hell that thing is) acting as a light rhythm. For anyone who has listened to I Can Make a Mess (especially the earlier albums), you can tell Ace Enders’ production by the sound of the electric guitar that accompanies some of the choruses, including “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe”.

The muted trumpet and electric guitar appear infrequently, and usually as background or bass to the acoustic melodies. But the minimal use only helps to amplify the chorus, such as the sax playing bass to the chorus of “You Ain’t No Saint”. Though they seem like they could be out of place, their minimal usage helps Aaron West feel intimate, personal and self-contained. Paired with the lyrics, the extra instrumentation almost manifests the dire feelings and situations that Aaron finds himself in.

The double edged sword for the stripped down acoustic theme is that songs can begin to feel stagnant after a while. On the other hand, anything more elaborate would distract from the lyrics.

We Don’t Have Each Other is an incredibly dense story. Campbell has written a masterpiece of tragedy about Aaron West, a twenty-something year old attempting to cope with a divorce from his wife Diane, brought about by the personal collapse he experienced due to the death of his dad and then the death of the couple’s (unborn?) baby. The whole saga follows Aaron through the darkest of his demons, as he reflects on what led to the divorce, how everything changed with his dad’s death and his new struggle with religion and faith.

Campbell has utterly outdone himself with his storytelling, making Aaron and the situations he finds himself in feel so utterly real it’s almost unbearable. From the outset, against the twang of a banjo of “Our Apartment”, Campbell sets up the disastrous divorce, singing, “I found enough of your hairpins to build you a monument, a statue of loneliness. Breathe it in, let it go. I caved a piece of the drywall in, replaying the argument”.

The struggle with religion comes up from time to time, from talking to God for the first time after the divorce in “Grapefruit” (“Hey, Holy Ghost, why’d you leave me? Where’d you go? I know we ain’t spoke in so long, but I’ve gotta know if I’m alone”) to feeling betrayed as he drives himself further into an alcoholic stupor in “Get Me Out of Here Alive” (“I’m starting to believe that there’s a God and he hates me. I’m starting to believe that my mom lied about grace and divinity”). Religion, along with the idea of driving South to Georgia, is part of the signature lyrical callback that we’ve grown to expect from Campbell through The Wonder Years’ entire discography.

What’s amazing is watching Aaron sink so damn deep, and then get violently pulled back to reality by the simplest things. While he questions feeling abandoned by God in “Grapefruit”, Aaron decides to start drinking. “Yeah, I’ll be the town drunk. I’ll be a burden to everyone”. However, in the darkest hours, he sees himself for what he is through the incredible lines of “The Thunderbird Inn”, where Campbell sings, “I drank my last paycheck dry, and outside a homeless man asks me for change and I, I look him straight in his eyes. He starts to apologize”, before screaming a strangled chorus of, “I didn’t know that I looked that pathetic”!

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is an exercise in craftsmanship. While the musical end of the album isn’t anything particularly original, it serves its purpose as a catchy catalyst. The real show here is the storyline. It’s profoundly dark, destructive and agonizingly uplifting. There may be other albums revolving around these themes, but nothing as straight forward or intense.

We Don’t Have Each Other is quite possibly the best written concept record out there, and cements Dan Campbell as the most prolific lyricist of his generation. I honestly cannot wait to hear the next chapter of Aaron West’s life (if there is one), and absolutely fear it at the same time, which is a testament as to how powerful his story really is.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.