Photo Credit: Lucas Garrido
It’s not often that just the title of an album makes more of a statement than the entirety of many full-length releases, but that’s pretty much the case with Halsey’s new release If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Coming barely nineteen months after her last full studio album, last year’s marvelous Manic (she even found time for a live album and an EP in the interim), Ashley Nicolette Frangipane’s new offering is every bit as strong, tight, well-crafted, poignant and enjoyable – maybe more so.
Despite the undeniably personal nature of her music, every previous Halsey album utilized a small army of producers (as many as twenty) and co-writers (up to forty). So the term “downsizing” probably applies here, since If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power employs a total of just four main collaborators. By far the most notable is longtime Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who co-wrote and co-produced each of the fourteen tracks. However, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is hardly a Nine Inch Nails album with Halsey singing lead. In fact, for a great part of it, there’s little that suggests Reznor’s influence, much less his direct involvement. This might have something to do with the fact that Reznor brought along with him his own collaborator: not another member of NIN but rather Atticus Ross, with who he worked on the instrumental score to the movie The Social Network (which garnered Reznor his controversial Oscar win).
Probably the track which will remind listeners most of what Reznor is best known for is the ballad “Belle in Sante Fe,” on which the piano resembles background music for a horror film like The Exorcist or Halloween. This is one of two cuts on which Reznor plays the 88s, the other being solid opening cut “The Tradition.” That track also illustrates how it’s Halsey’s lyrics – and her delivery of them – that emerge as the dominant force on the album. It’s hard to tell from many of them if the subject is meant to be herself or women in general, but the statement on “The Tradition” is powerful either way. “The loneliest girl in town was bought for plenty a price… // …her fear will eat her alive // Well, she got the life she wanted, but all she can do is cry.”
A few other songs are harder to mistake as anything but autobiographical. “You Asked For This” seems to be the singer taking stock of her own success (“You wished upon a falling star // And left behind the Avant-guard // Go on and be a big girl // You asked for this now”). The track is also musically reminiscent of Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” Still, despite Reznor’s input, it’s not the sound of the ’90s but rather the ’80s that turn up in a few key places on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. “Girl is a Gun,” is the type of ’80s upbeat synth-pop that artists like Kim Wilde once forged, while “Honey” boats a bassline very close to the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
“Lighthouse” opens with grunge-like feedback before revealing itself to be a grittier version of Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” On the subject of grunge, the ever-present Dave Grohl gets back to his roots as a drummer by beating the skins on the aforementioned “Honey.” But probably the album’s most pleasantly unexpected surprise – both in regards to the guest musician and the song itself – is “Darling,” a striking acoustic ballad on which Lindsay Buckingham provides the guitar.
A couple of tracks, most notably “1121” and “Whispers” are much closer to standard modern radio pop. With closing ballad “Ya’aburnee,” which features the best vocals on the album (and possibly the best of the artist’s career so far), the album ends quietly, but hardly with a whimper: Halsey’s strength as both an artist and a person comes through clearly even in her most vulnerable and unguarded moments. Ultimately, the title If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power has to be interpreted as ironic, since Halsey has already earned plenty of both, and with this album, she’s bound to end up with even more.