Halsey is no stranger to working with industry giants; the singer-songwriter (who uses she/they pronouns) is featured or has a feature on four out of the five top streaming tracks on Spotify, including BTS and the Chainsmokers. Their track record of artist collaborations has made an impressive set of billboard hits and radio mantras — a departure from the independent artist feel of Halsey’s debut album Badlands. The milquetoast radio hit “Closer,” for example, marked their descent into radio stardom and feels closer to a country tune for a barnyard prom than their debut indie sound.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power not just reclaims her image — one of an artist more concerned with discovering and expressing their identity than what fame or judgment that identity might garner — but also their autonomy and power over themselves. Halsey’s new album shows us she is still the eager artist that we saw back in 2015, but now with the added perspective of pregnancy and postpartum, having given birth in July. They give us an album grappling with an identity still affected by the traumas of yesterday, while facing the terrors of today: motherhood, pregnancy, relationship abuse, media perception, body image. With such a drastic identity shift, Halsey employed the work of Trent Reznor to produce the album.
Reznor’s production showcases this shift as Halsey explores her matured identity, while also reminding us of their indie origins. With crushing synths and post-punk drums, explosive highs and delicate lows, power and loss are felt so clearly in these Halsey/Reznor-collaborated songs.
The opening track “The Tradition” sets the stage for some recurring themes of the album: grappling with fame and the struggle for female empowerment. Lines like “flesh amnesiac, this is your song” and “they dress her up in golden crowns” establish a tension between body autonomy and fame, as well as royalty symbolism that is repeated throughout the album (if you didn’t already pick up on it from the the “Game of Thrones”-esque chair Halsey sits upon in the cover art, with open breast and child adorned in an almost Victorian regal portrait pose). And with the cover art reveal video in which she walks through an art gallery fitted with numerous religious sculptures and portrait paintings of the Virgin Mary, it’s clear Halsey wants to underscore the value of female empowerment while also showcasing the sacrifices one has to make to achieve it.
The album’s title calls to mind the dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore that Halsey mentioned in an Instagram post: “The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully. My body has belonged to the world in many different ways the past few years, and this (cover) image is my means of reclaiming my autonomy and establishing my pride and strength as a life force for my human being.”
The imagery of breastfeeding on the cover art serves to break this dichotomy and the stigma of motherhood: A mother is surely just as powerful and dominant. In connecting the image of the Madonna with the regal portraits of Victorian royalty through the cover art, they have equal value in their eyes. The album is both inviting us into the power of a sexual being, as well as the power of a mother.
Any cursory glance at the credits page might raise some surprise, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and his usual artist collaboration Atticus Ross. The duo brings to the table their typical industrial punk sound, stylistic of Nine Inch Nails and Reznor’s solo works, which contrasts the softer production of Halsey’s earlier works.
But what seems to be a strong collaboration between big industry artists is revealed to be more of a power struggle between the two. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power struggles to find a clear groove; at times, it feels more like a Nine Inch Nails side project than a true Halsey album.
Although it achieves enough with its sound to get its message across, it ultimately fails in its vision as a whole as the production overshadows Halsey’s lyrical capabilities. The industrial-rock-influenced sound tends to clash against her polished, crystal vocals, making it a chore to follow along to the words while there’s an industrial washing machine churning out pop tunes in the background.
You get the sense that the production is talking over Halsey, dominating the conversation by making it known it’s Reznor’s. At times, it presents itself loudly as a definitive Reznor project, other times it reaches for such heights as Halsey’s previous hits. When the production and lyrics work together in harmony with each other, the album makes more sense, it feels more cohesive, impressive and overall fluid as the danceable depressive, post-punk synths drone on behind Halsey’s front and center vocals.
It’s on tracks like “Lilith,” “You asked for this” and “Lighthouse” where the harmony between the two highlights how well their musical attitudes could work together, yet fall short of achieving throughout the work. “Lilith” especially utilizes the industrial dance tunes of the NIN Reznor style to make a hypnotic trip-hop track, which only heightens the confidence oozing from Halsey’s lyricism.
“You asked for this” is a mellow, soul-crushing song about regret and coming to terms with achieving fame, with vocals that, unsurprisingly, fit perfectly in a shoegaze-inspired track. “Lighthouse,” is perhaps the highlight of the album, with its references to sirens from Greek mythology and the poem “The Lighthouse” from Halsey’s collection released back in late 2020.
Not only does the music fit seamlessly with the vocals, but the lyrics are perhaps the strongest, most poetic piece on the album. Lines like “I met a sailor on a ship with promise in his eyes / He kissed me on the mouth and dug his fingers in my thighs” even reference the famous Sailor Kiss image. Sailors lure and deceive too: “But a sailor ain’t a savior ’cause they only tell you lies.” The song makes it clear that Halsey is far more than just radio hits, but very capable of writing powerful, complicated music with rich imagery and emotive storytelling.
Setting aside those credited on the album, whose hands in the making of the music might have been overzealous in some areas, the work is still, definitively, Halsey’s. There is no doubt that their lyricism, vocals and flair is written all over. From the emotion of the music to the evocative imagery of her lyrics and the visuals of the cover, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is another chapter in Halsey’s ever-evolving, and ever-strong, presence in the music industry.
Daily Arts Writer Conor Durkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.