Halsey Gives Birth to Greatness With ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’
Halsey has emerged among the young pop stars of their generation as an artist both with something to say, and the maturity to say it meaningfully. Maybe such declarations are premature — Halsey is only 26, after all — but where so many of their counterparts seem to look inward at the narrowly specific vagaries of personal relationships and professional success, Ashley Nicolette Frangipane has turned their own pregnancy into a referendum on biology and bodily autonomy. Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are skilled purveyors of danceable yet menacing sounds, Halsey’s concept album “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” released in tandem with an hour-long IMAX film experience, immediately stands out from the work of their contemporaries with its cinematic sweep and yet unexpectedly intimate focus.
From the very first notes of the album opener “The Tradition,” Halsey’s new music exudes the gender-conscious, empowering theatricality of a Ryan Murphy production, and seems destined to provide the soundtrack for a story about a woman who returns from the dead to exact revenge after a group of provincial male townspeople burned her at the stake (“I hope what’s left will last / all summer long / and they said that boys were boys / But they were wrong”). But as Reznor and Ross combine piano with haunting synthesizers and disembodied voices, Halsey throws down a provocative gauntlet (“Take what you please / Don’t give a damn / It’s in the blood and / This is tradition”) that indicates their outrage at a female’s lack of control of their own body will not be easily quelled by a single song or musical expression.
While the keyboards on “Bells in Santa Fe” evoke the urgent minimalism of Steve Hauschildt, Halsey locks into a groove with their evocative, atmospheric storytelling, delivering all-timer lines like “Jesus needed a three day weekend / to sort out all his bullshit” as subterranean beats reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers’ “My Elastic Eye” sneak in to punctuate the sentiment of the lyrics. It quickly becomes clear that Frangipane’s exploration of impending motherhood will not be literal, but that fact is what gives the music power; it certainly evokes Reznor’s mid-‘90s heyday with Nine Inch Nails in terms of tapping into deeply felt emotions but articulating them in more abstract ways. Reznor, of course, pivoted away from the (slightly) more commercial path he charted after “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile,” but you get a sense that this is where he might have ended up if he hadn’t, and quite frankly, Halsey makes that journey seem less burdensome with a voice that’s lithe despite all of the anguish.
To that end, “Easier Than Lying” is a future punch-dancing classic to be karaoke’d by emo girls getting over the bitter end of a relationship they aren’t quite ready to admit was probably a mistake to start in the first place (“I sleep with / One eye open and one eye closed / Cause I’ll hang myself if you give me rope / I lost all my faith and lost all hope”), while the clunky hip-hop beat of “Lillith” leads Halsey into the kind of pre-emptive mea culpa (“I get too caught up in a moment / I can’t fall in love if I show it / I just fuck things up, if you noticed”) that should read like a red flag but will almost certainly sound like catnip to a prospective lover. The variety in the songs is by itself almost enough to recommend the record; the lack of musical curiosity in the sound of some of her colleagues renders bland too many of their more meaningful compositions. But what’s most compelling about songs like “Girl Is a Gun” and the ones that surround it is the fact that none feel like they’ve been crafted to suit the current landscape of popular music — or, indeed, the demands of label executives listening for hit singles. Reznor’s “Starfuckers Inc.” seems like an obvious predecessor to the song with its similar flirtation with drum & bass, but as the producer he understands the advantage of weaving the effervescent prettiness of Halsey’s voice around the poison of the lyrics (“this girl is a gun / before you know it, it’s done / and you’ll be wishing that you crossed your fingers / oh but god is it fun, you can have more than once / so lemme show you how to touch my trigger”).
“You Asked For This” further leans into the latter-day ‘90s alt-rock vibes that Halsey subtly sows with the entire album; they indicated that the Cranberries’ Dolores O’riordan is a big influence on their sound, but there are also elements of Garbage’s Shirley Manson and others from that decade lurking, appealingly so, in the album’s songs. Enlisting no less than Lindsey Buckingham for acoustic guitar accompaniment turns “Darling” into an unexpectedly heartbreaking palate cleanser after all of those malevolent synthesizers, but the track provides a necessary reset to get through the tumultuous emotionality of the record as a whole, especially since “1121” jumps right back in with more end-of-the-world declarations: “I won’t die for love / But ever since I met you / You could have my heart / and I would break it for you.”
Reznor almost captures a Smiths vibe on “Honey” (featuring drums by Dave Grohl) as Halsey traces a path between the sweet and bitter of a bygone relationship, before setting up what absolutely should become one of Halsey’s signature songs: “Whispers,” a track about desire and vulnerability and addiction that feels like it will absolutely be accompanied live with a short diatribe about the dangers of social media before Halsey ironically performs it only to the illumination of the audience’s raised cell phones. It flows perfectly into the mid tempo throb of “I am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” which Halsey absolutely should open that same concert with, as they powerfully, defiantly detail the multitudes they contains over a descending, skeletal piano melody that feels distantly cribbed from Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” Afterward, “The Lighthouse” feels like a latter-day rebuke to the ‘70s A.M. radio hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, injected with venom to turn the story of a person scorned into something more broadly relatable.
Halsey closes the album with the quiet “Ya’aburnee,” a romantic tribute and lament, wrapped up in one. This final vignette captures the balance Halsey aimed for with the record, something heavy but catchy, emphatic but elegant — and if there are few (or no) direct references to their first child, or the disruptive biology of pregnancy, the album itself feels like a gestating being, which Halsey works through while bending the listener’s ear. Of course, to some extent they owe Reznor and Ross a debt of gratitude for this record’s unambiguous success, and its uniqueness among new efforts by a lot of very talented young artists eager to express what their lives are like; but “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” is a reminder that men may play a role in the birthing process, but ultimately it’s the mother whose effort will make the most difference.
“If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” releases Aug. 27 on Apple Music.