Review Summary: Lips better than Judas.
Halsey’s latest record has seemingly come out of the blue. Gone are the traditional pre-release singles, teasers that look into the artist’s state of mind...or vision and often the go-to advertising cornerstone for labels everywhere. With no singles acting as the gateway to If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
, it’s as if Halsey (born, Ashley Frangipane) stands with a solitary finger raised to the norms of what pop music should
cater to. I mean, as a statement piece, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
is already on the right path to molding, if not rejecting the well-trodden paths dominating the mainstays of the genre. To that effect, the fact that the new record is produced by Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross stands out abruptly. A jagged edge on a normally sweetened landscape and a definite contrast on a world awash with hooks and consistent Taylor Swift radio plays. That’s not a shot at the mainstream, but a point that what’s ‘conventional’ may not be directly on offer here. Cinematic atmospheres meet clear musical theatrics, after all, the mother/child imagery that adorns the cover is dramatic enough to turn a few heads without its aural counterpart and yet, there’s an intimate concept here—crafted in a world normally kept behind closed doors.
Better still, comes the Colin Tilley-directed IMAX film that’s being released, coinciding with the record. Like the artwork, it’s supposedly (I’ll confirm once it’s been sighted) filled with grandeur, placing Halsey in the central role; an adaptation of motherhood...child in lap. The artwork itself is primal and fierce—a defining moment stretched across a record that conforms only minimally to the conventional release practices of today.
In substance, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
is a bold take; melding eras and sub-genres into an amalgamation of individuality, artistically stemming from Halsey’s closer-to-home approach. I’ll clarify: the catharsis that seeps into the new album mostly comes from Halsey’s newly-minted motherhood views on life, a bigger point given how If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
’s seamlessly combines Trent Reznor’s darker industrial leanings and Halsey’s own tendency for saccharine lyricism into something interesting and
beautiful. The grit in Halsey’s vocals are but one example, but it's another layer added in lieu of just how Reznor’s talent behind the desk could be put to use. Take the album’s leading track, “The Tradition” for example; unassuming keys caress a floor to hold up Halsey’s even vocals—the structuring itself is haunting, void of obvious crescendo or cheese. The hook here is of sleight of hand, rather than being force-fed onto an awaiting listener while the crystal clear shine of pop music becomes an afterthought. Yet, the topics are as real as it gets: “Take what you want, take what you can / Take what you please, don’t give a damn / Ask for forgiveness, never permission.”
Sexual assault and rape stigmas are addressed at face value, and rightfully so.
“Bells in Santa Fe” fuzzes under the weight of Reznor’s signature menace, and yet by contrast Halsey’s vocals are cloy, even gentle in the face of such heavy lyricism (”Don’t wait for me/It’s not a happy ending”
), even more so in “Whispers” where the pangs of mental struggles surge to the front of the track’s general motif: (”“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’/This is the glimmer of light that you’re keeping alive when you tell yourself, ‘Bet I could *** him.’”
). Thoughts of self-harm sub-consciously bleed from the occasional Halsey song—in tune with the emotional roller coaster new mothers experience throughout the world.
“Lilith” and its impressive melodies blend the occasional glitch moment into Halsey’s work of solicited grimness while shifting the album’s larger sound towards a hip-hop base. By comparison, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
doesn’t quite reinvent its genres like last year’s Manic
, but it’s more cohesive, straight-forward in spite of it. Some cliché does make its way through the fun-fare, “Girl is a Gun'' can't help but pull on the build of melody and glam of a pop era anthems gone by and while undoubtedly fun, is the most dumbed down song on the record—but not at all too far from the aesthetic Halsey is creating. Even as we continue the path through the album’s back half tracks like “Honey”, featuring Dave Grohl behind the kit, offer up a grunge-fuelled pop song with bounce
. “Whispers”, (mentioned above) is deeper lyrically, a fraught take on relatable topics—and yet the track itself is a strong cut, invoking atmospheres well beyond 2020’s Manic
. These tracks, among others, are just as strong ensure If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
’s latter songs are just as strong as the first few.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
’s closing moments continue to lyrically pull on its listeners heartstrings. "Ya'aburnee", is essentially a love letter to her son; Halsey hopes that he will be the one to bury her, avoiding a parent’s bigger fear as they bring their child into the world. No parent would naturally handle the pain of losing a child and this calls back to those times where Halsey openly speaks about her struggles with endometriosis and multiple miscarriages. If there was ever a call for an arm-outstretched moment between artists and fans it’s here; strong and eloquent through Halsey’s lyricism, wrapped in Reznor’s pointed production values. Even as I write these words I feel connected
, at least in part to what If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
offers and yet I realize the detachment of being just a regular male and not on the same level as someone who is clearly feeling the expressive pangs noted in this music
. A female, bisexual or “she” perspective may have brought a better commentary on the matter at hand and any malformation of view is unintentional. That aside, Halsey’s 2021 entry is a definable moment within the year’s more deliberate aural musings, even without the benefit of days, weeks, months and years to fully expand on some of the album’s deeper contextual leanings. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
is a tour-de-force in the face of an ever-changing pop scene. More importantly, and closer to what I should be talking about, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
is on an upward trajectory in terms of Halsey releasing quality music. By and by, Halsey may not have love
, but her latest record is power