Halsey 2021
Photo: Lucas Garrido / Courtesy of Capitol Music Group

Halsey Offers Stellar Work Despite Iffy Production on New Album

Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power contains enough magic to be infectious. It’s an ambitious work by an artist exploring aesthetic possibilities.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Halsey
Capitol
27 August 2021

Much of Halsey’s music depends on the interplay and tension between melodic and vocal accessibility and what might be dubbed pop mystique. With her third album, 2020’s Manic, the singer embraced luscious hooks, delivering them with a crystalline voice while reveling in confessionalism, diarism, and poetic declarations. In this way, Halsey crafted a quasi-cult of intrigue, the kind of persona that makes fans, labels, and PR reps smile in their sleep.

Halsey partners with producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (NIN mainstays and Grammy Award-winning film scorers) on the new album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, forging a venture replete with distinct successes and notable missteps. “The Tradition” delineates an oppressed and exploited woman, possibly an impressionistic selfie in which Halsey laments the brutality of the music biz: “They dress her up in gold and crowns / … well, she got the life that she wanted / but now all she does is cry.” While the verses are austerely instrumented, the choruses make subtle use of soft/loud dynamics. Halsey’s voice is wrapped in sustained accents, the overall mix at once sublime and effectively anthemic.

“Bells in Santa Fe” spotlights Halsey’s natural vocal talent and some of the more straightforward yet elegant lyricism of her career: “Jesus needed a three-day weekend / to sort out all his bullshit, figure out the treason / I’ve been sеarching for a fortified defense / four to five reasons / but Jesus, you’ve got better lips than Judas / I could keep your bed warm, otherwise, I’m useless / I don’t really mean it ’cause who the fuck would choose this?” Her voice is supported by measured beats and classically inflected sounds that bring NIN’s early industrial-rock projects and later Ghosts LPs to mind.

On the sultry “Lilith”, Halsey’s voice is periodically treated with a distortion filter, giving the song a 1990’s post-grunge feel. While there’s an edgy quality to the tune (sharp beats, roiling ambient elements, a sinister lyric), the listener encounters a production-oriented glossiness and hyper-precision that undermine the track’s relatability. “Girl Is a Gun” conjures an adrenalized Lorde pre-Solar Power, Halsey playing the anti-pop popstar, holding boundaries and shattering fantasies: “No, I’m not your daydream, I won’t have your baby.”

On “Darling”, Lindsey Buckingham contributes a folksy guitar part, Halsey’s laidback vocal delivery evoking a Saturday-night-at-the-coffee-house vibe. The opening of “1121” offers a striking immediacy, though as the song unfolds, Halsey’s essential charisma is obscured by an overly slick treatment of her lead and backup vocals. “Honey” features a compelling melody, occurring as a well-textured sketch of a lover who is commitment-phobic but sexually irresistible. However, with its trebly drums courtesy of Dave Grohl, predictable ambient swirl, and pristine ’80s synth sounds, the chorus drifts into impalpability.

On “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God”, Halsey revels in a Plath-Sexton-and-Olds-indebted self-portrayal, mining the ever-popular “narcissism-meets-self-loathing” template. While this trope can seem hackneyed in the wrong hands, Halsey’s brand remains, for the most part, lyrically, vocally, and melodically enrolling: “I am not a woman, I’m a god / I am not a martyr, I’m a problem / I am not a legend, I’m a fraud.” “The Lighthouse” is an alluringly bluesy, clamorous, and more seemingly spontaneous take reminiscent of PJ Harvey circa To Bring You My Love. “Ya’aburnee” is a tribute to a romance experienced during younger, more impressionable days. “Always see my youth in you,” Halsey moans, the album coming to a wistful conclusion.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power includes some of the more memorable songs and vocal performances of Halsey’s career. Lyrically, the project reaffirms the songwriter’s knack for complex portraits and self-portraits. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the album’s production values intermittently undercut Halsey’s signature accessibility. An inaptly sleek production MO creates a barrier between the singer and listener on several otherwise cogent tracks. Still, despite this significant flaw, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power contains enough magic to be infectious, an ambitious work by an immensely gifted artist who is continuing to explore aesthetic possibilities.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters