In their latest album “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” Halsey reminds us of everything they do best. Combining their tried-and-true knack for concept albums with compelling soundscapes and genuine lyrics, Halsey propels us into a new era defined by the mastery of their craft.
While most of the world has been hunkered down in our homes trying not to lose our minds, Halsey’s been busy. Since canceling her 2020-21 tour due to the coronavirus, the multi-faceted artist, whose given name is Ashley Frangipane, released a poetry collection, launched her makeup brand about-face and pursued her lifelong dream of becoming a mother.
And in true Halsey fashion, we get to hear all about it in a 42-minute confessional with no features.
“If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” was released Aug. 27 and produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of rock band Nine Inch Nails. It was accompanied by an IMAX movie that meshed some of the 13 pop-punk tracks with an hour-long Renaissance myth starring Halsey as an abusive monarch’s pregnant widow.
Halsey — who goes by she/they pronouns — said “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” explores “the joys and horrors of childbirth.” Halsey’s been open about struggling with fertility due to her endometriosis, a painful reproductive health disorder she received surgery to treat a few years ago.
The movie goes further than Halsey’s personal experiences and instead sheds light on the overarching social structures surrounding gender, sexuality and birth.
Yeah, you heard that right. On top of everything else, Halsey created a genre-bending concept album about her pregnancy while simultaneously working as the lead actor, makeup artist and executive producer of a fantasy film she wrote to comment further on the structural complexities of child-bearing. And it was effective.
The historical setting of the movie gave the emotional songs more levity. Halsey acknowledges these emotions surrounding womanhood and childbirth aren’t unique to her; they’re human and embedded in the social structures we pass down.
“The Tradition,” a low, mysterious exposition that describes a woman’s experience of concealing pain and anger with beauty. “She smiles back, but it’s a fact / That her fear will eat her alive / Well she got the life that she wanted / But now all she does is cry.”
Instead of dwelling on longstanding feelings of powerlessness, Halsey uses the chorus to yell some advice, “So take what you want, take what you can / Take what you please, don’t give a damn / Ask for forgiveness, never permission.”
Even though “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” is different from anything Halsey’s ever released, it’s at home in her discography. Halsey said it’s the album they’ve always wanted to create, but never felt cool enough to.
Obviously, they’ve always been cool enough, but the fact they’ve spent seven years in the music industry striving to improve their art is obvious.
In “Badlands,” Halsey’s 2015 debut album, they used bedroom pop to imagine an entire fake universe that conceptualized a teenage headspace. “hopeless fountain kingdom,” their 2017 follow-up record, retold Shakespearean tropes with grunge-pop radio bangers. In 2020’s “Manic,” Halsey sang us a self-portrait of their challenges with mental health.
“If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” combines “Badland’s” world-building with “hopeless fountain kingdom’s” catchy vibe while remaining just as honest and self-representative as “Manic.”
In “Whispers” — which could be sisters with her mental health anthem “Control” from “Badlands” — Halsey describes her mental illness as a monster that still controls her life, despite her successes. Personifying a feeling allows her to describe her struggles in chilling specificity, making them easy to relate to even though everyone has their own challenges.
Halsey sings, “I’ve got a monster inside me that eats personality types / She’s constantly changing her mind on the daily / Think that she hates me, I’m feeling it lately.” However, she whispers the self-sabotaging thoughts that haunt her even while she’s doing well: “‘You do not want this’ / This is the voice in your head that says, ‘You do not want him.’”
Despite her talent at precise self-deprecation, Halsey makes it clear that they’re no longer a 19-year-old half-singing their Tumblr poetry. Instead, she’s a well-practiced professional who effortlessly controls her voice as she shifts from rock banger to radio single to ballad, often even in the same song. She doesn’t use it as an excuse to skimp on the storytelling either.
This combination of styles is most clear in “Easier than Lying,” where literary lyrics overlay heavy guitars and a steady drum, reminiscent of early 2000’s pop-rock written by a novelist.
Halsey sings, “I’m only whatever you make me / And you make me more and more a villain every day / But you don’t know, you reap, you sow / Whatever you give to me, from yourself you take / Well if you’re a hater, then hate the creator / It’s in your image I’m made.”
She then flows into a louder chorus while sirens sound in the background, yelling, “I sleep with one eye open and one eye closed / cause I lost all my faith and all my hope / that anything means anything at all.”
“If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” is a perfect example of what happens when an artist puts energy into growing without devaluing or dismissing their past work.