At first glance, Halsey’s discography is littered with the expected, easily digestible alternative pop music of catchy breakup songs of little depth — some view her as simply just another radio artist with big-name features. Their music, however, has always been lathered in grand metaphors, gaudy theatrical storytelling and experimental textures; she has constantly been pushing the boundaries of what she’s been boxed into.
With their latest masterful fourth studio album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey showcases their extravagant, expanding musical ability to craft a record that departs further from their pop identity and steps into a riskier, more industrial sound of alternative rock. This shift in style is in part due to the record’s producers, iconic Nine Inch Nails (NIN) members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
At times, the record can be unapologetically confrontational with fuzzy electric guitars, loud piano chords, heavy drums and unexpected vocal textures, backing lyrics addressing institutional misogyny and personal struggles with pregnancy. Yet at other moments, its acoustic strings and slow tempos are inviting and warm, often featured during songs written as if they were love letters to her younger self and family. Despite its slightly disorganized framework and sometimes disrupted flow, the record feels complete with its incredible diversity.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is paired with a 50-minute IMAX experience with the same title. Fittingly, the album’s opening tracks “The Tradition” and “Bells in Santa Fe” reflect that of an epic movie soundtrack with an empowering build to energy, chaotic propelling synths and lyricism detailing a protagonist’s call to action. Especially with the vindictive track “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” Halsey’s persona — a flawed, personified character of their inner dialogue — seeks revenge for being taken advantage of, and this bitterness propels the story from one about submission to one about fighting back. There is a clear NIN fingerprint in these three songs that remain tasteful to Halsey’s pop sound, successful even with its chaotic turns that most pop singers wouldn’t brave.
Across 13 tracks, Halsey’s vocal performance astonishes with beautifully layered harmonies and heavenly falsettos. Their singing carries each song’s rhythm, and on some tracks such as “Lilith” or “Honey,” their flow turns to a style characteristic of rap. Notably, with no featured artists, she makes the most of her voice. In “Whispers,” she uses relentless whispers to resemble her bipolar disorder, amplifying the voice in her mind that preaches self-sabotaging behavior and influences their decision-making. In “The Lighthouse,” they repeat lines behind static to mirror the singing of the sirens, mythological creatures that kill sailors after seducing them with irresistible singing. Through various textured sounds and vivid lyricism, the album’s storytelling goes above and beyond Halsey’s previous works.
But with all these production risks taken by Reznor and Ross, there are bound to be some misses — many of the songs are somewhat unstable, with slight audio quality differences between songs and acoustic tracks confusingly sandwiched between heavy rock songs. The majority of the songs cohesively focus on heavy topics such as failed relationships or the loss of a child, but some don’t quite fit in — “Honey” comes out of nowhere as a sappy, misplaced love song. Moreover, most of the songs run just under five minutes, leaving these fantastically produced songs to seem just slightly unfinished.
Despite these minor issues in production, Halsey has created the best record of their career so far and accomplished it by being the most vulnerable they’ve ever been — and in turn, more relatable than when they were reaching to make catchy anthems about youth in America. With clarity, she details grim topics surrounding illness, the line between stability and self-sabotage, abusive relationships and finding peace after trauma.
In an interview with Billboard, Halsey clarifies that their album is in no way intended to be a feminist, “girl power” project. This project was made for her alone, a creative attempt to process her life, identity and roles as a musician and new parent. With this album’s deep vulnerability, it’s hard to imagine making a record that can successfully follow this one, but only time will tell.