ALBUM REVIEW: Halsey, If Can't Have Love, I Want Power
It bears noting right up front that I have never considered myself a Halsey fan. they got popular in a time when Tumblr was on the way out and all my friends were shopping at Urban Outfitters, and I remember always seeing the Badlands album cover there. Their lyrical themes felt so patronizing, as if they were capitalizing on teen mall culture, “We are the New Americana/High on legal marijuana” was what really did it for me to be honest. They were just a pop star cosplaying as a hipster, like Taylor Swift on “22”. The production was the same as any dime-a-dozen Katy Perry song but their lyrics were perceived as “deep” by their unearned wave of teenage fans at the time. On top of that, their feature on The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” was the bane of my college existence, and their two subsequent albums alluded me as a result. Maybe it’s kind of wrong of me to only pay attention now that two men that I fuck with are producing for them, but it is for good reason. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are not ordinary men, their classic output as Nine Inch Nails and recent plethora of soundtrack scoring have put them in a category all their own. Relevant to Halsey, they are a duo that are down to get experimental and conceptual, two qualities that Halsey’s particular blend of stadium pop desperately needs.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power washes any of their previous efforts by a wide margin. The inclusion of Trent and Atticus turns them immediately from a popstar to a baroque rockstar. Starting with the cultish “The Tradition”, their usual modern EDM pop is replaced with sour piano chords and bassy orchestration. Many nerds will probably note that this song sounds like something from Game of Thrones. I refuse to watch that show but it’s accurate, it definitely sounds like a track that would play before 50 people get decapitated. Lyrically, Halsey is criticizing the pervading masculine culture of taking instead of asking for, “Ask for forgiveness/Never permission” they boldly proclaim. I feel like a more independent figure like Lingua Ignota or even Joanna Newson would’ve been more cryptic and artful, but this is a good start for Halsey. From there, the genres range including piano balladry, industrial, trip-hop and pop-punk.
Like most modern pop stars dabbling with rock or industrial, the influences are clear. Nine Inch Nails are an obvious one, but their production credits legitimize the sound for me. In addition to that, any further influence feels connected considering the duo’s storied history in the music industry. For example, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus and “Easier than Lying” have a lot in common, but since NIN have been operating since the late ‘80s, I feel like they deserve the right to implement that. On top of that, Halsey gives a fitting performance on the gothy and more straight-forward rock portions of the song. Aphex Twin and NIN sounds collide on “Girl is a Gun”, the breakbeats remind of one of the early Aphex singles like “Digeridoo” or “Donkey Rhubarb”. Between Halsey’s bright singing and the busy beat, this is definitely one of the best songs they’ve ever made. “Bells in Santa Fe” reminds me of a theme from Gone Girl or The Social Network, with anxious synths and deep chords as Halsey shows off their improved songwriting skills, “Jesus needed a three day weekend/To sort out all his bullshit/To sort out all of the treason/I been searching for a fortified defense/Fortified reasons”.
In my opinion, the quality of the record begins to dip as it continues on. Whether generic or just not entirely my taste, slow tracks like “Darling” and “1121” just feel like dark wallpaper. Halsey does have a really great voice, making these drab instrumentals a little more bearable. The more modern pop-punk on this record goes off without a hitch surprisingly. I have not really been feeling this Travis Barker wave with acts like Willow, Trippie Redd and Machine Gun Kelly all swapping out hip-hop/R&B for Warped Tour Core. I think what Ross and Reznor do is much more nuanced and has influences that run deeper than Good Charlotte and Blink-182. “You asked for this” combines the indie melodies of Canada’s Alvvays with ‘90s shoegaze rock. I like the way their vocals get consistently more buried as the guitars become the star. Lyrically, they stay edgy but with a purpose, “Who the hell is in your bed?/You better kiss goodnight and give some head/And then next, the morning comes instead/Well, is this the life that lies ahead now?” “honey” references the blissful acoustic sounds of The Cure in their Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me era. Halsey’s pop vocals soar overtop, but lyrics like “she’s sweet like honey” and “she’s mean and she’s mine” definitely feel too basic. The last four songs feel really hit or miss, with “Whispers” and “The Lighthouse” being the big misses. The latter track is this awkward pairing of dark country and pop songwriting that sounds like “Before He Cheats”, I have yet to listen to it in full because it’s too corny to bear. “I am not a woman, I’m a god” is so Pretty Hate Machine that Trent might as well do a guest spot on it. This is probably my favorite track on here, between the ‘80s sci-fi synths and Halsey’s patient performance this is a winner. The closer isn’t half bad either, diving into the themes of motherhood, wanting to be buried before their child or their partner.
Speaking on the overarching themes of the record and the cover, I think that Halsey did a really great job at portraying motherhood, Being as this is a pop album that will likely go number one, it’s all very on the nose. Halsey is a mother sitting on a throne with a nipple out holding their child, obviously themes of female empowerment are very prevalent in the lyrics. I will give it props for being more daring and different than most Billboard Top 10 albums, and the fact that many of their fans will hate this makes me feel like they’re doing a good job. My main complaint about the whole project is Halsey's voice and how commercial it can sound. They overcome this on a great deal of the songs, but sometimes that shines through the tough industrial exterior and takes me out of the experience a little. All in all though, this is a solid pop record, by far their best.