Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

A powerful song cycle, transformative in its rage and pain...

Halsey’s life has been transformed through the experiences of parenthood. Giving birth to their first child this summer, the pop icon has discovered what it means to have something truly rely upon you – and in turn, view their life through the eyes of another.

‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is fuelled by these experiences, by the twin currents of dependency and self-knowledge; it asks demanding questions of the world around us, in addition to the probing interrogations Halsey subjects their own psyche to. Powerful and unrelenting, the decision to incorporate production from Nine Inch Nails pairing Trent Reznor and Atticuss Ross into their world is an inspired one – an emphatically emotional experience, this album is shot through with blood red sonics.

Yet the follow up to 2020’s ‘Manic’ begins in overtly delicate, pretty arenas. Piano led opener ‘The tradition’ is audio bliss, yet this setting contrasts with the cynical venom of Halsey’s steal-what-you-can-and-get-out mantra: “take what you want / take what you can / take what you please / don’t give a damn…”

‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is a world dominated by blockaded pathways, and reinforced glass ceilings; lyrically, Halsey presents a landscape where change is achieved by forced. It’s tempting to see these frustrations through the lens of the pandemic – after all, Halsey took their place in multiple Black Lives Matters protests, and spoke up against injustice throughout. There’s a personal edge to the work here, however; a societal treatise, for sure, songs like ‘Darling’ achieve something specific, tender, and personal.

Yet it’s also unashamed to be ugly. ‘You asked for this’ leans on shoegaze at its most guttural – think NOTHING or even UK pioneers Swervedriver – before bleeding out into heavy-duty industrial pop, the lengthy climactic arrangement utilising Nine Inch Nails personnel to their fullest. ‘Easier than lying’ meanwhile subverts pop-punk tropes, with the bolstered production seeming to reinforce those Blink-182 riffs in concrete.

Direct and unbowed, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is Halsey at their most confrontational. ‘Girl Is A Gun’ warns “I’m not your daydream” amid its helter-skelter trop-pop, while the metal swagger that runs through ‘The Lighthouse’ puts us in mind of Garbage icon Shirley Manson.

An experience that delights in contradiction, the album never settles down into one area. ‘Darling’ may have folk guitar inflections, but ‘Bells in Santa Fe’ is pure Steve Reich minimalism, heavy on repetition, conjuring an anxious mindset amid its endless synthetic pirouettes and digital undulations. Indeed, stylistic centre-piece ‘I am not a woman, I’m a god’ returns to these elements, marrying Halsey’s undoubted pop credentials with rivers of synths, one part Moroder and one part Cybotron.

Closing with the touching ‘Ya’aburnee’ – an Arabic word which essentially wishes death before the other person, as they couldn’t live without them – Halsey eschews the studio bombastics in favour of something simple, and stunningly direct. A song haunted by the spectre of death, it’s a plea for communion: “I wish we could live together…”

A record framed by the traumatic landscape of the past 18 months, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is also explicitly connected to the transformative events in Halsey’s own life. I’s also useful to note that at a time when their pop peers have embraced hushed, organic tones – think Billie Eilish and her torch songs, Lorde’s ‘Solar Power’ – Halsey has swung in another direction entirely. A world of distortion and contradiction, blood and venom, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is a singular statement, one of extreme power.


Words: Robin Murray

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