Sunday, August 29, 2021

Review: If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power • Halsey

On paper, Halsey’s fourth studio album seems like a fanfaction at best: Drawing inspiration from her recent pregnancy, the record was produced by Nine Inch Nails and accompanies a moody full-length IMAX film. On its cover, the artist is adorned in performative medieval cosplay, sitting on a golden throne with an infant in hand. All of it was dropped in one giant chunk overnight, presenting itself with the prestige and anticipation of a Beyoncé record. Though its exceptional marketing wrapper could tantalize anyone even mildly interested in the artist, a dedicated Halsey rock album seemed like a stretch for someone who jettisoned into the musical atmosphere cradled in a moody synthpop parachute – and that thought lingers even off the back Manic, an album that proved she boasts an efficient camouflaging ability to sidestep between numerous genres. Perhaps that’s because it was, in fact, a stretch: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is mostly just a Halsey record. To its credit, though, it's one filled with interesting textures and uncontainable discomfort, even at a time in her life – her first full-term pregnancy – that society often paints as unconditionally glowing.

Halsey no doubt hyped the record she believed she made: One that pushed her to her outermost musical limits and wedged her into metal music. And if the three opening songs – collectively, an impressive crescendo from unsteady piano to electric rocker – were to represent the whole album that unfolds after them, that’d be a fair and honest campaign. In reality, Halsey frames up her trademarked sensationalism into a compatible industrial dance rock: Electric guitars, techno-revival bass lines, and pianos are used in rotation to carry most songs, but never en masse to overwhelm a song’s simple melodic heartbeat. Songs with high octane bass lines (“I am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” “Girl is a Gun”) throb against her cool vocals, meriting more of an intuitive hip shake than a head bang. On heavier numbers like pop-rock anthem “Honey” or instant standout “You Asked for This,” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross carve a shallow trench to embed (rather than compete with) her vocals, often restrained as she rides through comfortable, undemanding melodies. In that way, the album more often elevates her strengths than it does detract from them.

With the album loaded in powerful songs, some others – namely, the Lindsey Buckingham-assisted “Darling” and “Lillith,” with its long faded Twenty One Pilots aesthetic – fall into the crevices between the album’s best moments. Even still, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power becomes her most uniform and interesting effort since Badlands. Flipping motherhood on its head, Halsey focuses on the underrepresented terror that surely ensues as a pregnancy matures: Far beyond the bodily manipulations that must occur to support another life, she faces the magnified responsibility and the potential motherly schism in public image. “You Asked for This,” for one, declares, “You wished upon a falling star, and then left behind the avant garde for lemonade in crystal glasses, picket fences, file taxes.” Fearing the loss of individuality, she channels anxiety into an exercise of power dynamics: How we identify power, how we gain it, how we leverage it, and ultimately, how we relinquish it to benefit another. The pathway there is littered in high drama and imaginative verbosity – but those are the landmarks that remind us it’s a Halsey record. And it’s a pretty good one at that.

If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power is available now under Capitol Records.

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