Halsey is not one to slow down. Since her third album was released just last year, the 26-year-old has toured, released a book of poetry and, most recently, given birth. That last experience has provided much of the creative fuel for her latest album that explores, in her own words, “the joys and horrors of pregnancy and motherhood.”
True to its title, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power (★★★★☆) radiates strength and intensity. With a production assist from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Halsey layers dark, industrial elements over her sound.
Reznor and Ross’ influence is palpable, but not overwhelming — this is still very much Halsey’s album. Its sound doesn’t quite have the weight or grunginess of Nine Inch Nails, nor is it trying to be, but the resemblance is there.
This heavier sound marks a notable tonal shift for her, and that shift can be heard in real time in the album’s second track “Bells in Santa Fe” as tense, sparse electric keyboarding shimmers over her lyrics as a background drone builds up gradually into a deep, industrial grind by the end.
The droning synths and bass are often meticulous, but now and then they are the stars of the show, as they are on “Easier than Lying,” the album’s loud, cathartic pop-rock banger that puts them front and center.
Halsey would be the first to admit that the album’s angst and ferocity underscore some intense feelings she has had to work through. Motherhood looms large in the background and foreground, and in Halsey’s hands it is not so much a conceptual starting point as it is an expansive scaffolding from which to explore feminine power and resilience.
Almost putting too fine point on it, she lays it out most clearly on “I am not a woman, I’m a god” an electro-R&B track that lays out the complicated, contradictory nature of her position, claiming divinity in the titular lyric and then declaring a breath later, “I am not a legend, I’m a fraud.”
Despite dressing up as the Virgin Mary on the album cover, Halsey is not interested in being a one-dimensional archetype of empowerment. She bears plenty of battle scars with lyrics like, “Go on and be a big girl / you asked for this,” on “You asked for this,” following up with “You better show ’em why you talk so loud.” In other words, she has come by that inner fire honestly.
She shows off a spiteful side several times, singing about having her patience stretched to the breaking point on “Easier than Lying,” her “fuck around and find out” anthem. “Whispers,” on the other hand, reckons with her inner demons, openly wondering why she sabotages herself at every turn.
Preoccupied as Halsey is with strength and power, she skillfully avoids giving them a superficial treatment, never losing sight of power’s dirty underside or the unpleasant realities that shape it.
Both the rawness of her lyrics and the new direction her sound has taken lend the album a weight and complexity that back up her pretensions to the powerful persona she embodies. Halsey is already known for strong statements, and If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power has a solid claim to being her strongest one yet.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is available to stream and purchase. Visit www.loveandpower.com.
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