Halsey delivers their boldest album yet with the Nine Inch Nails-aided ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’
Halsey has been sneaking heavier rock music into their extremely successful pop music since day one. They regularly cite alternative rock bands like Nirvana, The Cure, and The Cranberries as influences, they're frequently namedropping (and sometimes sampling) punk and emo bands, they nabbed Alanis Morissette for their last album, and they've appeared on Travis Barker-aided pop punk revival tracks from Yungblud and Machine Gun Kelly. So it's not really out of left field that they'd make an album entirely produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the core duo of Nine Inch Nails; it's more like a long time coming.
If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power -- which also features Dave Grohl, Lindsey Buckingham, TV On the Radio's Dave Sitek, The Bug, Meat Beat Manifesto's Jack Dangers, Pino Palladino, and Karriem Riggins -- is the darkest, most unconventional-sounding album that Halsey has released yet, but it still feels like a Halsey album. Their distinct voice is in fine form, and their songwriting is at its most authentic. They've called the album -- which comes with an accompanying film -- "a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth," and their lyricism dives into these topics in a way that feels plucked straight from a diary. "My new baby's been testing me lately/Making me crazy from morning to evening/And I cannot take it, I love it, I break it," they sing over the skittering breakbeats of the Jack Dangers-assisted album standout "Girl Is A Gun." The song is such a dancefloor-mover that it might take a few listens to realize how much it mirrors a therapy session. An even more intense moment comes on the somber album closer "Ya'aburnee," when Halsey croons "Darling, you will bury me before I bury you." It sounds assertive on paper, but when you hear their sing it, you can feel the fearfully implied "I hope."
Musically, Trent and Atticus prove to be well-matched collaborators for Halsey. Sometimes the album sounds a little like Nine Inch Nails, like with the brooding goth of "Whispers" or the cyberspace synths of "Bells In Santa Fe" (ft. The Bug), but for the most part, the trio came up with their own sound, and there's a good amount of musical diversity. Halsey raises their voice to a shout on the aggressive alternative rock of "Easier Than Lying," offers up shoegazy grunge with the Dave Sitek-aided "You Asked For This," and sneers over the bluesy stomp of "The Lighthouse." With help from Dave Grohl, they go full-blown '80s post-punk on "Honey," and then channel the same decade's glossy synthpop two tracks later with "I Am Not A Woman, I'm A God." It's heavy one minute, danceable the next, and it also finds time for ballads, like the piano-fueled opener "The Tradition," the aforementioned "Ya'aburnee," or when Halsey gets folklore-ish over Lindsey Buckingham's arpeggiated acoustic guitar on "Darling." Even this album's cynics will have to admit Halsey's no one-trick pony.
Given the choice of collaborators and the art rock sound, this album seems destined to be treated favorably by critics and award shows, but for a pop singer whose last album produced their first chart-topping single, it feels like a genuine risk. Even given the recent trend of indie-friendly pop singers, If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power feels like an outlier. It reminds me less of those albums and more of Yeezus, the dark, industrial album that Kanye West put out at the peak of his career. Halsey's already infiltrated the Top 40; now they've given listeners their most sonically and thematically challenging album yet. It's an album that could shake up the mainstream and the underground, and it's a thrill to see someone of their stature doing that.