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With If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey Crafts Her Own Mythology

The alt-pop singer's fourth studio album, produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, explores identity in the wake of pregnancy and childbirth

If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power Review
Halsey, photo by Lucas Garrido
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    When Halsey shared the artwork for her fourth studio album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, the inspiration was clear: seated on a throne, confidently exposed with a child in her arms, she is the regal image of the Madonna. Halsey (who goes by the pronouns “she/they”) has always seemed fascinated by the stories that make up humanity, from the mythic to the biblical and fantastical. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is the next chapter in her own tale.

    This marks the fourth studio album for Halsey, who is on the cusp of turning 27 — her debut LP, Badlands, shot the singer into the spotlight when she was just 20 years old. Her bracing honesty and electronic production helped her cultivate a dedicated following of young adults, many of whom have grown with her in the years since that debut. Her fantastic 2017 collection, hopeless fountain kingdom, expanded the mythology she had started to design in her music — by the time Manic arrived in 2020, though, she was ready to peel back some of the grandiose layers.

    On Friday (August 27th), If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power will arrive somewhere in the middle: it’s heavier than Manic in many ways while also bearing some of the boldness of hopeless fountain kingdom. Impressively, the singer kept most of the LP’s details under wraps before its release — the track list wasn’t revealed until the last minute, and no songs were released prior (a rarity in this day and age).

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    Above all, Halsey knew exactly what they wanted to express with this album: “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,” they explained on Instagram the day the album was announced. “My body has belonged to the world in many different ways the past few years, and this image is my means of reclaiming my autonomy.”

    Halsey has assembled a great team around her for this reclamation. The album was produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose industrial touch rises to meet the expectations of Halsey’s penchant for the avant-garde. The album’s release is accompanied by an hourlong film exploring the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth. Esteemed stylist Law Roach also lended his talents as costume designer, draping Halsey in regal looks.

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    Like Halsey, Reznor and Ross just have the range: not all writers or producers could go from Nine Inch Nails to Pixar. Their touch is felt most strongly on opener “The Tradition” and mid-album track “1121,” but Reznor and Ross share co-writing credits with Halsey on every song of the album.

    Halsey, who was born Ashley Frangipane, is no stranger to loss — their longtime listeners, by extension, are familiar with their often gut-wrenching story. (“I stared at the sky in Milwaukee and prayed that my father would finally call me,” a line from “929” on Manic, is a sentiment that sticks.) They’ve been open about their struggle with endometriosis and multiple miscarriages, and the safe arrival of their child is a wondrous relief. While the album is rooted in this chapter of Halsey’s life, inextricably connected to their experience with pregnancy and childbirth, the story is still their own. They are not reducing themself to Halsey (new parent), but asserting themself as Halsey (musician/mother/filmmaker/whatever comes next).

    That being said, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power feels so broad in places that it teeters on vague. Halsey’s intention was not to make a relatable album, and that’s entirely respectable, but it seems that some lyrics are interesting phrases more than they are interesting ideas. “Girl is a Gun” was perhaps envisioned as an anthem of autonomy, but the metaphor tires quickly.

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    Elsewhere, the lyrics unfold like poetry (an area in which Halsey also has experience). She shines on the gentle “Darling,” the most acoustic track on the album, which features guitar courtesy of Lindsey Buckingham. “Foolish men have tried/ But only you have shown me how to love being alive,” she confides.

    On If I Can’t Have Love, there’s romance, there’s sadness, there’s plenty of trademark defiance, but some of the album’s best moments are the most intimate. On elegiac closer “Ya’aburnee,” she nearly whispers: “Your beauty is a blessing/ And I never got to tell you/ How I love the way my eyes make yours look green, too.”

    Throughout their discography, Halsey has proven that they are adept across genres, bouncing from radio-friendly bubblegum pop to grungy rock and, more recently, country-folk sounds. Here, it’s a gift that If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is slimmer than the feature-heavy Manic. They hold the spotlight well enough on their own.

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    Meanwhile, the deceptively-named rock sounds of “Honey” (which features Dave Grohl on drums) and the slow groove of “Lilith” provide a draw for people who fell in love with her alternative sound. Halsey seems well-versed in the allegories that inspire her: Lilith, of course, is a demonic figure in Judaic mythology, and the song of the same name is a harsh critique of her own self-destructive tendencies.

    Later, though, on “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God,” she starts to swing between the extremes: “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.” Perhaps she can’t make up her mind, but maybe she just knows that her story isn’t full written yet. As she steps into this next chapter and a life that looks incredibly different from what’s preceded her, one thing she seems sure of is the fact that she hasn’t put the pen down yet — and doesn’t plan to any time soon.

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    Whether Halsey becomes the stuff of legend, after all, will ultimately be their decision.

    If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power Artwork:

    If I Cant Have Love I Want Power Artwork

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