REVIEW: HALSEY – IF I CAN’T HAVE LOVE, I WANT POWER

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

[Art Pop, Industrial Rock – USA – Capitol]

I’m going to be honest and say I didn’t know very much about Halsey going into listening to this album, instead coming at it from the perspective of being a huge Nine Inch Nails fan. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have helmed production and provided instrumental performances across the entirety of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power in a rare move. I’ve heard of them adding production to individual tracks for other artists here and there – including Lil Nas X’s breakthrough smash hit ‘Old Town Road’ – but this is very exciting new territory for the duo who also compose film scores together.

What impresses me so much about their involvement in this project is that they’ve kept a respectful distance and allowed pop star Halsey to still run the show. The duo have avoided going too far into the heavy expansive sonic depths of Nine Inch Nails as well as not relishing too much into the heady sound design of their film scores. Though there are glimmers of these qualities, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross are still in pop record mode through and through, producing some of their most accessible, stripped back, catchy and immediate instrumentals to date.

Of course, there is no way Halsey’s efforts here should be downplayed, turning in a magnificently versatile vocal performance that lyrically captures an array of emotions, hopes and fears that centre around themes of womanhood and maternity, being pregnant with a first child during the writing and recording of the album. ‘The Tradition’ is an excellent introduction that showcases Reznor’s iconic eerie piano melodies, building up with strings into a cinematic song as grandiose as the album cover, with a gripping vocal performance from Halsey. ‘Bells In Santa Fe’ is a beautiful melancholic piece that escalates gradually in intensity with what sounds like a hammered dulcimer lead and a powerful yet understated vocal from Halsey with the haunting refrain “All of this is temporary”. Getting louder and louder towards it’s climax, it cuts straight into the explosive industrial rock of ‘Easier Than Lying’ which ends with Halsey screaming and growling over noisy, scatty guitars, fantastically reminiscent of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs. ‘You Asked For This’ is another brilliant industrial rocker, this one more sorrowful, yet boasting one of the best and catchiest choruses on the album, “Go on and be a big girl, they’re gonna drown you out, you asked for this now.” Late into the album, ‘I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God’ is another huge highlight and an empowering anthem that hangs over a groovy as hell electro-pop instrumental, sounding like a sonic sibling to NIN’s mega hit ‘Closer’. Perhaps Halsey becoming a god is an intentional throwback to Reznor’s immortal line “You get me closer to God”.

A number of guest appearances pop up through this remarkable record, including contributions from producer Kevin “The Bug” Martin, drummers Kareem Riggins and Dave Grohl, and most spectacularly, a wonderful stripped back acoustic ballad ‘Darling’, centred perfectly in the middle of the chaos, featuring Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham (a frequent NIN collaborator) playing acoustic guitar.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power feels like a true collaboration between Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; one that feels mutually beneficial. Halsey is taking a lot of creative risks and really pushing themselves as a vocalist, a lyricist and a pop artist, whilst Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross prove that they can bring a racket, an edginess and a coolness to the sphere of modern pop music. Longtime Nine Inch Nails fans should eat this album up, as it is just an excellent showcase of Reznor and Ross’ endless talents with nothing at all watered down, no rough edges softened, supremely sequenced, thoroughly, carefully and expertly crafted. If I Can’t Have Love sometimes comes close to flying off the rails, but always manages to reel it in and stay on track. And from Halsey’s perspective, this is another exciting release that proves that modern pop music is a wild west playground where artists new and old are willing to shake things up, go harder, take risks and push boundaries, whilst still finding big hooks, melodies and performances.

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If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is out now through Capitol.

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