Halsey, “hopeless fountain kingdom” (Astralwerks/Capitol)
To describe Halsey’s sophomore album as ambitious would be an understatement. It actually begins with her speaking the prologue of “Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare is kind of a tough act to follow.
So full credit to Halsey for stretching herself on “hopeless fountain kingdom,” an album that demands attention as the singer-songwriter explores new musical ground, often in noncommercial places.
It’s a complex, sober, riskier CD brimming with heartbreak from one of pop’s most exciting artists. Halsey considers it a concept album and how well it works is debatable. But there’s no denying the skill and desire involved.
Halsey is frustrated and broken on all 13 of the tracks, many of which are surprisingly spare. “Sorry” is mostly her and a piano, gorgeously done. “Lie,” featuring Quavo of Migos, and “Walls Could Talk” are more song fragments, wisely left alone. “Hopeless” is just a whisper of a song. The spoken-word driven “Good Mourning” clocks in at just 1:07.
She lets her rock voice out to great effect in “Bad at Love” and she melds nicely with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui on the techno-flavored lovers’ duet “Strangers.” ”Alone” marries anguished lyrics to a peppy Donna Summer-like arrangement. The Weeknd gets a songwriting credit on the ghostly “Eyes Closed” and Sia gets one for the very Sia-like “Devil in Me.” Cellos, violins and choirs pop up all over the album, adding a kind of ghostly majesty.
Halsey, born Ashley Frangipane, rose to fame with “Closer,” her monster track with The Chainsmokers, and her excellent 2015 debut album, “Badlands.” This time, she’s turned to hit songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin. Halsey has a hand in every song and Kurstin knows not to overcomplicate.
The new album might not have huge anthems — the closest is the exquisitely sad “Now or Never” — but it’s just as satisfying, with Halsey’s breathy voice and confessional lyrics taking you to unexpected places. “Don’t you see what you’re finding/This is heaven in hiding,” she sings.