When the battle cry of “New Americana” rang out across the internet six years ago, Halsey secured their spot in pop music’s pantheon. A product of and for the Tumblr Generation, Halsey rode their trademark vowel-breaking vocal performances and lovestruck lyrics to international fame. Throughout their career, Halsey has been quietly subverting the tidy popstar blueprint that has dominated our world for decades. Since Badlands, their debut record, each Halsey album has come with a massive radio hit. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom birthed “Bad At Love,” Manic spawned “Without Me,” and in between those were supersized collaborations like the Khalid and Benny Blanco-assisted “Eastside” and the Chainsmokers duet “Closer.” With every new hit or streaming achievement, Halsey only became more committed to what they feel is most important. One of the most candid pop stars in recent memory, Halsey has been incredibly open about living with endometriosis, their bisexuality, their racial identity, mental illness, voting rights, immigration policies, and more. From a musical standpoint, each album concocted a new fictional setting that progressively chipped away at the “Halsey” persona and revealed the intricacies of Ashley Frangipane. Now, with their fourth studio album, Halsey has unleashed their most daring undertaking yet — an unflinching exploration of motherhood and sexuality as well as a rejection of the perfect pop star archetype and the concept of happy endings.
With Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross on production duties, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, signifies the convergence of two seemingly disparate spheres of pop music. Going into their fourth album, Halsey, undoubtedly a mainstream pop star, had already started playing with sounds and collaborators (“Nightmare,” “3 AM,” Alanis Morissette, etc.) that leaned in the direction of Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rock sound. Reznor & Ross have been on a recent hot streak with their award-winning scores for miniseries and films such as Watchmen, Soul, Bird Box, and Mank — visual works that dominated pop culture. The collision of Halsey, Reznor, and Ross came with questions and theories galore. Would Halsey (finally) be making a rock album? Is this going to be some sort of left-field passion project that completely rejects anything close to Top 40? Would Halsey employ the duo’s talent in a completely unexpected way? The answer is a combination of yes (to all three questions) and then some. If I Can’t Have Love nimbly shifts across influences from grunge, industrial rock, pop-punk, acoustic pop, and 90s hip-hop with ease. Seeing as the album arrives alongside an accompanying R-rated feature film, the record is fittingly cinematic with rousing string arrangements to round out the overall sound. If I Can’t Have Love is Halsey’s first featureless album since their debut, and the result is a record that constantly closes in on itself. It’s claustrophobic in the sense that Halsey’s psyche has never been so bare on a record. It’s a very delicate balance, but they ultimately make it work.
“The Tradition” opens Halsey’s fourth record with a haunting piano set against a nursery rhyme-esque vocal melody that illustrates a girl being bought and sold. A heavy-handed metaphor for fame in the music industry, “The Tradition” redeems itself by the way its intensity ebbs, flows, and eventually explodes into a brooding final chorus where every line bleeds into the next one. It’s a stunning opener. When Halsey sings “it’s in the blood and this is tradition” in the midst of their pleading for young women to never ask for permission, they flip the idea that the dehumanization and brutalization of women is something that has to be a “tradition” in our world. “The Tradition” seamlessly transitions into “Bells In Santa Fe,” a song that immediately presents itself as a more mature version of Badlands-era Halsey. In the same way that Badlands featured lyrics rooted in Shakespearean love stories and baked in wry Zilenneial grimness, Halsey sings “Jesus needed a three-day weekend / To sort out all his bullshit, figurе out the treason.” The sputtering synths provide a sonic counterpart to the stability that Halsey’s “it’s not a happy ending” chant suggests. In the years leading up to If I Can’t Have Love, Halsey got into a loving relationship and had their first child — two experiences that have historically led to a pop star’s flower-accented “rebirth” era. With this album, Halsey’s goal is to reveal that even the happiest moments do not solely exist in a vacuum of joy, there are always other, oftentimes contradictory, emotions swirling in the background.
By the album’s third track, “Easier Than Lying,” If I Can’t Have Love finally veers into the lane that everyone has been waiting for. In the midst of a pop-punk revival, Halsey is here to remind us that they’ve been ahead of that curve, and they do this thing just a bit better than most people. From the brash delivery of “I sleep with one eye open and one eye closed / ‘Cause I’ll hang myself if you give me rope” to the militant drums in the bridge, “Easier Than Lying” is a feast. If anything, the only thing this song, and most of the rock-leaning songs on the album, is missing is that extra level of loudness to really make it pop. Across the board, the mixes feel a bit too low for the energy that Halsey is bringing to each song. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power never disappoints with its pop-punk moments. “You Asked For This” is a stunning grunge ballad that finds Halsey reflecting on all of the ugly that has come with achieving the dreams they “wished upon a falling star.” They simultaneously assert their humanity in a world of celebrity while recalling the defining song of their debut album (hello, again, “New Americana”). On “Honey,” Halsey gets sensual. They use the pop-rock genre to explore the different facets of their sexuality and subvert the expectations placed on mothers and their relationship to sex after childbirth — particularly mothers in the public eye. Again, the metaphor is heavy-handed, just as it is on “The Tradition,” but these moments where Halsey doesn’t take themself too seriously are necessary in such an ambitious project. “The Lighthouse” leans into the industrial background of Reznor and Ross for a raucous song that details the story of a siren luring and killing abusive men. It’s a sinister track that exacts revenge very meticulously. Halsey employs a dreamlike quality to their voice which offsets the *brooding* instrumentation. These darker moments are not few and far between, but the album never feels to heavy because Halsey is interested in unpacking the totality of emotions that make up a “happy ending.” The album’s production finds brighter moments in the more pop-leaning numbers like the boom-bap-infused “Lilith,” the scatterbrained hyperpop-informed “Girl Is a Gun,” and the swaggering synth-laden “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God.”
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’s best moments are “Whispers” and a pair of tracks dedicated to their child. The former is where the album folds in it on itself completely. Halsey peppers the track with actual whispers to mimic the different corners of their mind as they explore how mental illness can lead to accidental self-sabotage in romantic relationships. “This is the voice in your head that says, ‘You do not want this’ / This is the ache that says, ‘You do not want him’,” they sing. This is the kind of introspective moment that is nearly impossible to pull off without feeling either too surface level or too corny. Halsey is one of the few artists that can make a song like this work because they’ve built so many lyrical worlds around this very topic — the difference is that they’ve shifted the magnifying glass to themself and stripped away the mythological imagery. On the other hand, the pair of tracks about their first child — “Darling” and “Ya’aburnee” — are exquisite. The former is a delicate finger-plucked guitar number that functions as a lullaby. For all the promises to hold their child tight and give them a shoulder to cry on, it’s the closing line that is sure to echo into every listener’s heart: “Foolish men have tried / But only you have shown me how to love bein’ alive.” As for “Ya’aburnee,” the title is an Arabic phrase that roughly translates to “you bury me,” it’s a heartbreaking gut punch of a song that is one of the most honest musical displays of a mother’s love. This is a harrowing album closer; sparse synths color lyrics that, once again, find Halsey exploring their mortality and humanity — this time with the promise that they will leave this Earth before their child does.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is careful not to overstay its welcome. At just 12 tracks, it’s a succinct album that could have benefitted from an additional few tracks to flesh out some of the larger concepts at play. Halsey takes on a lot throughout the album, but the set’s chief issue is that it never truly takes it there, sonically. Even on the most rollicking rock-informed numbers, the guitars feel muted in comparison to previous attempts at a similar sound like “Nightmare.” This is clearly an album that will reach its final form in a live setting, but it’s still an admirable effort from an artist that continues to evolve and challenge our perception of 2010s pop superstardom.
Key Tracks: “Ya’aburnee” | “You Asked For This” | “Easier Than Lying” | “Honey”