Reviews by mars
Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power review: Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is Halsey’s ode to pain and pleasure in newfound motherhood on their strongest and most cohesive album to date (8/10)
Creating a visual world surrounding their art - and fully committing to its journey - is nothing new for Halsey (born Ashley Frangipane). Their 2015 debut Badlands and its cotton candy-infused aesthetic reaches from the album’s cover art to Halsey’s hair color despite the music’s darker tones. The album’s biggest hit, “New Americana,” features Halsey rhyming “Biggie” and “Nirvana” on a record that critiques our world’s obsession with popular culture. Ironically, it’s this very song that skyrocketed Halsey into superstardom and cemented their role as a massive contributor to said culture. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired concept album, served as an amalgam of their dark bedroom-pop roots and the guaranteed top 40 radio hits that solidified Halsey’s star power. They drew inspiration from the Shakespearean drama and the visual worlds created by Australian director and producer Baz Luhrmann. But it wasn’t until 2019’s one-off single “Nightmare” that Halsey came into their true self. An alternative-pop anthem, “Nightmare” perfectly encapsulated the rage felt by many during the Trump era. And while the track didn’t make the final cut for 2020’s Manic, it helped set the stage for where we find Halsey today.
Returning to their tradition of providing conceptual, visual, and sonic art is If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power (released August 27, 2021). Halsey’s fourth studio album, and its complimentary IMAX film, both depict the horror and the healing of romance, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. It is a clear - and much welcomed - return to the rock roots last heard on Manic’s “3am” and their collaboration with Machine Gun Kelly, “forget me too.” But something within the walls of I Want Power is noticeably different in that most of this era feels largely unprecedented despite Halsey dipping their toes in the rock pond in recent years. Where the Manic era showcased the then-25-year-old amid a pop dream come true, #1 hit and all (with the Timberlake-inspired “Without Me”,) the IICHLIWP era was quietly revealed through city billboards. No lead single introduced the album months before its release, no promo performances, only gothic trailers for the 53-minute film and a larger-than-life album art reveal at the Met.
On If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey fully commits to this new sonic venture with the help of Nine Inch Nails and Oscar award-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The singer, who goes by she/they pronouns, creates a rock-infused world that fans dreamed of them exploring for years. Halsey, Reznor, and Ross take listeners on a journey through their ambitious attack on both misogyny and patriarchy, along a path to motherhood, and what it’s like falling in love throughout it all. The union of these three marks one of the most tangible collaborations in recent pop music history. Reznor and Ross produced the entirety of I Want Power, and it’s a marriage of sounds that makes one wonder how this many years went by without this pairing of like minds. The duo assisted Halsey in crafting a cohesive body of work composed of gothic-inspired instrumentation, industrial grunge influences, and alternative rock.
The album’s 13 songs are mostly icy and blunt in their delivery. On “Easier than Lying,” what begins with an instantaneous intensity continues to build on itself and eventually explodes into pure madness at its end. Their scream-singing is drowned out during the song’s chaotic and cathartic choruses, and it serves as a fascinating union of melody and production - predestined for a massive, crowd-surfing stadium performance. The ‘90s hip-hop-infused “Lilith” begins as a breath of air following the force of its predecessor until Reznor and Ross' production collapses into a glitchy oblivion. "I've been corrupted," Halsey states as production purposely overpowers their lyrics. These tracks are splattered with rich textures and busyness that at times is disorienting, but within the scope of the album, it works.
The more top 40-leaning moments on the record shine for that reason: they are crafted with infectious hooks that elegantly tap into both the synth-pop last heard on Manic and the growing turn toward pop-punk à la Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” and Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever.” Album highlight “honey” features a stellar drumming performance thanks to Dave Grohl and has Halsey reminiscing on a former flame. “I am not a woman, I’m a god” is not an homage to Ariana Grande’s “God is a woman” but rather a hypnotizing electro-pop hit on the rise. They tell of a desire for power across a purposeful bass line while detailing clashing sentiments that dominate daily life for women in modern society. “I am not a woman, I’m a god / I am not a martyr, I’m a problem,” Halsey proclaims.
The dream - and longing for - motherhood isn’t new for Halsey. The singer-songwriter has been upfront about their previous miscarriages and struggles with endometriosis. On Manic’s “More,” they sing to their future child. “When you decide it’s your time to arrive / I’ve loved you for all of my life / And nothing could stop me from giving a try,” Halsey warmly delivers. On Power’s tracks that cover this theme, aggressive rock is swapped for softened guitar and piano to convey the most sentimental moments. The folksy “Darling” is an acoustic lullaby with a guitar feature from Lindsey Buckingham and serves as a touching reminder for Halsey’s son to always love despite the darkness surrounding life. “Ya’aburnee,” the album’s closing track, is a love letter to their newborn child yet still carries the gloominess that permeates the entirety of the album. “And if we don’t live forever / Maybe one day, we’ll trade places,” Halsey sings. “Darling, you will bury me / Before I bury you.”
At 26-years-old, Halsey has fully embraced their artistic vision on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. It’s a grandiose statement piece by one of pop’s strongest songwriters, an exploration of both the instability and safety in romance and a newfound love previously unknown. Unlike Halsey’s prior studio efforts, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is a true introduction to Halsey as a catalog artist creating an album not anchored by attempts at chart success. Their voice sounds so good across the entirety of the record, and the rock genre fits Halsey’s vocals like a glove. Both complex and intensely ambitious, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is a much-welcomed venture into territory destined for greatness.
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NY-based, 26-year-old, music-obsessed and loves to write about it.