Halsey’s new album isn’t what we were expecting – it’s better

Halsey celebrates pregnant and post-partum bodies on the cover of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
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Halsey's new album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power bring together their complicated journey to motherhood and their musical power. Kate Williams reviews a powerhouse new album.

Deep into the unbridled chaos of 2020, Halsey decided to do two things: begin work on a new album, and to try to have a baby. The two were fated to become intertwined, and the end result is their finest creative work to date.

Taking to Instagram in a surprise post, the singer-songwriter announced their fourth album would be produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails and explained that it would be “a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth”. 

Directly inspired by Halsey’s own experience with pregnancy, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is not exclusively tied to one idea – which is exactly what makes it so impactful.

The 13 song tracklist broaches issues of generational trauma, women’s autonomy over their own bodies, the dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore, and the shadow of self-sabotage, all alongside fears and hopes for their unborn child.

Although the thematic through-line of impending motherhood is at times almost undetectable, Halsey weaves a vivid tapestry that centres not around the act of creating a new life but the kaleidoscopic experience that comes with it. 

Having addressed their complicated journey towards motherhood in music before, most notably on their previous album Manic, this perspective is bold and personal; particularly for an artist who has suffered from struggles with reproductive health such as endometritis and miscarriage.

In a conversation with Reznor and Ross at Capitol Record Studios, Halsey commented on their new-found maturity, saying that they no longer feel that they have to be a “disaster person” to create interesting art. 

The tone of the album is entirely unapologetic – perhaps self-deprecating at times but never self-indulgent – and it is utterly delightful to hear the voice of a young artist who is so self-aware. 

Halsey is not only using their art to express personal growth and experience, but as a weapon for dismantling cultural stigma and expectations about what it should mean to be a mother.

The artist takes pains to celebrate female sexuality on vibrant tracks like honey and Girl is a Gun, the sea-devil within is embraced on heavy alt-rock jam “The Lighthouse” and the meticulous, unflinching 43 minutes is finished off with tender love ballad Ya’aburnee.

Birthing anthems worthy of being belted out in the car and poignant thoughts that linger long after the music stops playing, Halsey demonstrates that these fractious elements of humanity can all coexist peacefully – even in somebody’s mother.

Halsey’s new album isn’t what we were expecting – it’s better
Brash, dignified, and defiant: Halsey embraces as many parts of herself as she can find on the album.

All of this is brought to life by the signature lyrical imagery we’ve come to expect at its savagely honest and provocative best. But Halsey’s words and melodies shine like never before thanks to the amplification of their new collaborators.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bring their genius to the album in full force by sliding effortlessly between haunting, naked instrumentation and seething production, creating palpable atmosphere which is both unsettling and captivating.

The styles of Halsey and NIN have always shared a musical kinship, so the collaboration is an exciting one. Halsey’s vulnerability as a songwriter offers a unique emotionality to the music, while Reznor and Ross’s ruthless creative clarity intensifies each visceral beat. 

Never to be accused of doing too little, Halsey also decided to write and create an IMAX film experience to accompany the album, which was released a week prior to the album drop. 

Brimming with decadent renaissance imagery, the hour-long film ties the songs of the album together in the narrative of a young Queen Lila (played by Halsey), who, according to the official synopsis, “wrestles with the chokehold of love to ultimately discover that the ability to create life (and end it) unlocks a paranormal power within her.”

The album is a formidable demonstration of creative prowess and feminine power, and an absolute triumph for the global superstar and new mum.

After so much time spent in the public eye, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is, in Halsey’s words, “a means of reclaiming my autonomy and establishing my pride and stength as a life force for my human being”. 

Having taken a pandemic, a pregnancy and a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration and caught lightning in a bottle, Halsey has earned once and for all the right to declare at the top of their lungs: “I am not a woman, I’m a god”.