Halsey’s growth has been one of modern pop’s most thrilling rides. In 2015, they released their debut album, which shot them immediately into lofty festival spots and to the upper echelons of the charts. Instead of lean into the radio-friendly side of their work, like ‘New Americana’, they opted to take a more interesting approach – casting a break-up as a modern-day take on Romeo & Juliet on ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’ and lowering the mask of Halsey to reveal a deeper insight into Ashley Frangipane’s psyche and personality on last year’s ‘Manic’. There have been some big, easily digestible moments along the way, like their first Billboard Number One ‘Without Me’, but for the most part experimentation and invention has been their M.O.
Nowhere is that more true than on their fourth album, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’. For this record, the pop star has teamed up with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to create an album of industrial, grunge and goth rock that details Halsey’s experience of pregnancy. This isn’t a document of a magical period, as we’re conditioned to think of the time preceding imminent motherhood, but a light shone on the more complicated side of growing another life.
The album is less about the physical part of that, but the mental and emotional obstacle courses you have to find your way around to be ready to be responsible for someone else. Here, Halsey reckons with who they are and who they’ve been, salvaging the good bits from their dissections and burning up the rest. On ‘Whispers’, one of the most moving and impactful moments on the record, they narrate their inner monologue, depicting nights spent lit up by their phone’s blue light as they’re trapped in an endless scroll. “Sabotage the things you love the most,” they groan. “Camouflage so you can feed the lie that you’re composed.”
Moments later, their voice drops to a whisper as they become the voice in their head, telling themself “You do not want this”, “You do not want him”, but also “Bet I could fuck him”. It’s a powerful and searing portrait of our self-destructive tendencies and the sometimes disastrous tightrope walk between making good choices and submitting to the chaos.
On ‘Bells In Santa Fe’, Halsey’s lyrical power comes to the fore, full of dark humour and wit. “Jesus needed a three-day weekend/ To sort of all his bullshit, figure out the treason,” they sing. Later, they tell a lover, “I could keep your bed warm, otherwise I’m useless/ I don’t really mean it cos who the fuck would choose this?” The undercurrent of self-loathing sizzles stronger and darker as they add: “Don’t wait for me/ It’s not a happy ending.”
But there are also sweet, beautiful moments that suggest happier times ahead. Closer ‘Ya’aburnee’ (“You bury me” in Arabic) is one of the best things Halsey has put their name to so far, an ultra-romantic, stripped-back gem that still carries an “undertone of sadness”. “I think we could live forever in each other’s faces,” they tell their partner Alev Aydin. “Cos I’ll always see my youth in you.” But even as they’re vowing, “I swear I could give you anything” the end is on their mind: “Darling, you will bury me before I bury you.”
The finger-picked acoustics of ‘Darling’ does a similar emotional balancing act, Halsey pondering early on “Maybe I’ll be better if I take my meds/ Ain’t a doubleheader if you lose your head.” The light pierces through again as they contemplate “foolish men have tried/ But only you have shown me how to love being alive.”
Assisted by Reznor and Ross, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ careens through episodes of experimentation, a smash-and-grab of industrial, breakbeat, grunge, noise-rock and much more. Although this isn’t the first time Halsey has stepped into the rock arena (2019’s ‘Nightmare’ brought big fuzzy riffs into the singer’s world, while ‘Manic’ track ‘3am’ mined sticky dive bar rock), the duo’s vision (and an all-star cast of Dave Grohl, Lindsey Buckingham, The Bug and Dave Sitek) suits their phenomenally well. Particularly, on ‘I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God’, the propulsive, dark synths cushion their cries of “I am not a legend, I’m a fraud” in perfect harmony.
There are a few moments that don’t land quite so well. ‘The Lighthouse’ swings on dirty guitar licks but falls flat, sounding less inventive and original than the rest of the record. ‘1121’, too, offers a change in dynamics for the record, but its rippling piano line fails to stand out against the more intoxicating moments that surround it. In the grand scheme of things, though, Halsey has created a stunning portrait of a pivotal moment in their life that’s thought-provoking, anthemic and totally electric.