Halsey's 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power' Lacks the Latter
Published Aug 30, 2021Alt-popster Halsey has sanded some shine off their sound to create a gritty pop-punk album that puffs out its chest but does little else. Their fourth album, If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power, promises a bold, fantastical concept album, but while it sounds the part, lyrically and conceptually it rings a bit hollow.
Like on their first two albums — 2015's Badlands and 2017's hopeless fountain kingdom — Halsey seems to lose commitment to their concept midway through, a disappointment after the accomplishment of last year's Manic. The wonky pastiche of Catholic imagery, folklore tropes and grunge themes strings together phrases and metaphors that mean next to nothing. Halsey is perpetually a fussy rebel without a cause; their lyrics evoke themes of revolution, power, and violence, but to what end is unclear. While their songs can feel like galvanizing anthems, they lack a driving force to land the punches they talk about throwing.
The album's first half sets an intriguing baroque landscape full of the holy and the sinful, like giving the pop-punk revival treatment to FKA twigs's Magdalene. Despite their pop beginnings, Halsey has plenty of experience as a rock vocalist that makes the shift in their sound feel natural. Producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails do a good job pushing Halsey's sound into idiosyncratic, aggressive territory and bringing out the grit in their vocals. The first half of the album flows well, hitting hard with the screaming "Easier Than Lying," slinking through the delicious "Lilith" and embracing full garage-band nostalgia with "You asked for this." Throughout this, Halsey demonstrates shades of riot grrrl and early-aughts emo, with plenty of alt-pop panache to keep fans happy.
These tracks shouldn't necessarily work together, yet somehow they do, and it's a treat to listen through in order. However, the middle of the album culminates in "Darling," a tinkling, precious country love song that feels shoe-horned into an otherwise promising tracklist. At this point, the album seems to forget the world it set out to explore. The religious imagery becomes disjointed, the lyrics become sloppy, and the flow of the first half is lost.
Many of the album's remaining songs still sound great individually even if they fail to build on the groundwork of the first half. Lead single "I am not a woman, I'm a god" is a synth-heavy, throbbing arrangement that successfully marries Halsey's pop, hip-hop and punk influences into an angry yet danceable tune. "Whispers" is a raw, dark track that focuses on promiscuity as self-sabotage; this is a theme Halsey explores often, and every new attempt demonstrates both impressive growth and aching authenticity. One of the album's shining moments is "The Lighthouse," a mix of country noir storytelling and a sea shanty backed by dark, stormy guitar. The bizarre and playful genre-bend is Halsey at their best: cinematic, outside the lines, a little macabre, and exceptionally creative.
The album succeeds with songs that are a fun listen and a smart revisit to pop-punk nostalgia. However, all the clever production and accomplished vocals cannot disguise that the album simply cannot find its point. Thematically, the songwriting is all over the place and at times vapid and nearly nonsensical. The stronger elements at play get thrown off by tracks that were probably better left for a different project entirely. The album's lack of cohesion doesn't necessarily degrade the listening experience, but it prevents the songs from feeling like a complete project. Despite being a generally enjoyable listen, If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power fails to pack any real emotional punch. (Capitol)