It’s probably fair to say that Halsey has moved away from the sources of derision that plagued their early career. Where Badlands was ‘deep’, ‘activistic’ Tumblr-pop at its most predictably shallow and hopeless fountain kingdom couldn’t suitably pay off the weight of its bigger concept, last year’s Manic felt like a far more defined effort, where a lot of Halsey’s past artifice was deliberately made easier to see through, and thus could resonate a lot stronger. That still remains their strongest effort to date, but even that seems to have been clouded by the intrigue surrounding this new release. For one, the notion of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross serving as producers served as the immediate eye-catcher; at a time when so many pop artists are siphoning some quick bucks by going pop-punk, the air of—for lack of a better term—legitimacy that something like that brings is encouraging, as a means of sidestepping the quick path for something with a bit more longevity to it. On the other hand though, the big, glossy photoshoots and the accompanying film made it abundantly clear that Halsey’s performer side was taking the wheel rather than their more human persona from Manic, but when they’ve grown and refined themselves this much as an artist, and with such a clear vision behind what they’re doing, it feels so much easier to get onboard with. The problem was never the presence of artifice; it was that Halsey never knew how to pay it off properly, and with an opportunity like this that has so much potential, the results were always going to be fascinating, if only to see what this was actually going to be.
It’s a difficult album to unpack too, because it simultaneously feels like the exact expected move that Halsey would make moving forward, but also the sort of sharp left turn that doesn’t make any future pivot too obvious. That’s unquestionably a good thing in terms of creativity, elevated even further when Reznor and Ross’ fingerprints are all over this album, but it can also feel like a case of an artist pushing and contorting themselves in ways that aren’t natural and still won’t fall into place. It certainly has great moments where the stars align and Halsey’s confluence of artistic grandeur and poetic confessionalism comes together, but without the same highs that Manic had with a releatively more ground-level approach a similar thing, it’s not quite the great album that the pieces might’ve indicated. At the same time though, this is a Halsey album, and if they’d have come up with something like this around 2015, it would’ve been revelatory considering where their career was then. It definitely feels like a completed metamorphosis in a sense, where in every sense, there’s a maturity and a sophistication that comes through, and still makes for a truly engaging listen regardless of shortcomings.
To be fair too, those shortcomings are nowhere near as consistent as they once were, though you could attribute Halsey themselves to be perhaps the most noteworthy. The trill in their voice still isn’t the easiest to get along with, and they definitely feel underpowered on a song like Easier Than Lying and its rock backing. They aren’t unappealing as a singer, but in a sense, they’re also the least impressive part of their own album, when a lot of those bigger swings are either in the sound that’s so much more wildly diverse than they’re used to, or the lyrics that have that unspooling poetic quality that, even at the most austere and esoteric, feel so supremely crafted. For all the peritexual concepts that have come through in this album’s marketing—religion, art, horror et al—Halsey clearly has a sharp knowledge of each medium, and that does show through in the album’s density. Encompassed by the umbrella of pregnancy after suffering through endometriosis and multiple miscarriages, there’s a tangled, knotted bed emotions sifted through from multiple angles; opener The Tradition frames the notion of women’s bodily autonomy through an almost medieval setting in how its main character’s plight unfolds, and where the grander, artistic vision sees the piece grow with self-examination on Lilith and I am not a woman, I’m a god. In a way, it’s a return to the visions of the old Halsey, character-driven and stuffed with pomp, centring herself as the Madonna to parse out its dichotomy with the whore that many will level and decry towards them. It’s perhaps not quite as well structured as they might’ve wanted, particularly with a track like honey that acts as the most obvious pop concession, but these big concepts and opulent lenses from which they’re viewed do carry a lot of weight. Of course, it’s the moments where the vulnerability and recognition of their propensity to self-sabotage that feel the strongest on If I Can’t Have Love…, where the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy short circuit the empowered mindset elsewhere, and the defeated tone of You asked for this just perfectly encapsulates the ache of the blame they put on themselves. Even without a 3am to drive home that power, If I Can’t Have Love… is arguably more balanced overall, where the divine femininity and imperfect humanity come together and hold both spectacle and substance.
Though, to talk about ‘spectacle’ in the context of this album has to circle back to the sound, in what can only be seen as the most accomplished and exciting that Halsey’s work has ever sounded. And yes, that’s down to Reznor and Ross behind the scenes, who appear to be operating in trains of thought akin to both their Nine Inch Nails work and film scoring experience, but achieving almost universal excellence in both. This is where the album shines the brightest, where the atmosphere and essence of a grand but faded mural so perfectly buoy up the Halsey’s lyrical directions, and where the rock turns aren’t even the most impressive. Sure, there’s something pleasing visceral on Easier Than Lying, and the tectonic lurch of The Lighthouse is similarly great, but there’s definitely a mushier quality to the grunge stylings on You asked for this rather than a lo-fi one, exacerbated by how easy it is to pick up on. More often than not though, it’s the iciness and sharpness that works best for this album, in how the glassy synths dance and fizz on Bells In Santa Fe, or how immaculately crafted the IBM skitter on Girl is a Gun is, doubly so for how much Halsey can really sell their performance on it. Just generally though, there’s a mix quality that has a lot of richness and flavour to it; it feels like Halsey’s most fully-formed rockstar moment, backed by appearances from Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham to further that legitimacy, and real nail down a vibe that makes this album so much more different from any of their others. Where Manic was scattered and coquettish with genre, this feels a lot more single-minded even within the variety, and it’s impressive just how far that degree of focus can take things in its favour.
It makes for another step in what feels like the reinvention of Halsey, where the awkward early years have fully been shed, and made room for a more refined and unilaterally stable artistic presence. It’s a combination of vision, writing acumen and musical dab-handedness that comes together so smoothly, where it’s not without its cracks but can do more than enough to mitigate them, or at the very least, distract from them. Moreover though, If I Can’t Have Love… is a more definitive statement that Halsey can still pull off these grander concepts without feeling bogged down or out of their depth, and to see that return as one of the more interesting factors of their earlier career is potentially something interesting going forward. In terms of what this album accomplishes overall though, it feels more like a suitable companion piece to Manic above all else, opening out the human element into something more, and doing so without losing it or undermining what it achieves. That’s strong creative design, and it’s indicative of a great album to come sooner rather than later. Just a few years ago, even alluding to that would be pretty unthinkable.
For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, Garbage, Alanis Morissette
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ by Halsey is out now on Capitol Records.