Sometimes you learn about a collaboration in the making that sounds so promising, your first instinct is to completely dial down expectations, lest there be too much disappointment when the uncertain chemistry goes pfff instead of pow. So it was when Halsey just recently revealed one of music’s best kept secrets, that an entire album was in the bag with the production team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor’s a guy who hasn’t much lent himself out for studio-album work-for-hire since the days when Marilyn Manson was barely a gleam in a defense attorney’s eye. Better to steel for a letdown than hope that an album title like “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” promised provocative fun.
But here it is, and it’s just about everything you’d hope that a collab between Halsey and Reznor/Ross would be… except long enough. Of the 13 songs on the standard edition of the new album, only one surpasses four minutes, and five are under three — not a lot of time, really, to build up the kind of sinister simmer Nine inch Nails are known for and also get in some flagrantly sing-able hooks and stream-of-consciousness rage rivers from Halsey herself. (Or themself — the artist recently expressed preference for a mixture of both pronouns now.) Somehow, they manage it, in highly captivating songs that are a little bit pop-punk, a little bit pop-prog, and all — dare we say it? — pow-pably good. The economy with which they proceed through this showcase never lets the album gets bogged down in its hit-and-run high drama. They’re operating on that good old show-biz maxim: Leave ’em wanting more brooding.
It’s another case of “beauty and the beast” making for an effective teaming. Only, with due respect to the artist’s Renaissance-portrait-ready cover likeness, it’s really they, Halsey, and not they, Reznor and Ross, who is the beast here. It’s easy to imagine the producers cowering in the corner as a then-pregnant Halsey got her rage on in some of these songs. (The parties actually recorded apart during the pandemic, but still, let us keep our charming mental pictures.) One of the songs is titled “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” in case you think they mean a nice god, consider that another of the song titles is “Lilith,” named after the demonic figure of Judaic lore. By the time of the penultimate “The Lighthouse,” she’s having her way with a sailor who may be the devil himself, and coming out on top. “He’s laying in the water begging god to let him drown / So I showed him all my teeth and then I laughed out loud,” she sings, over the album’s heaviest, grunge-iest guitar track. “‘Cause I never wanted saving / I just wanted to be found,” she adds, in an addendum that takes the tune out of the realm of horror and back into a kind of self-revelation that feels vulnerable, for all the teeth talk. There are a lot of turn-on-a-dime moments on this album where you don’t quite know whether to give her a hug or flee in terror, and the fact that neither impulse becomes the dominant one is part of why “If I Can’t Have Love” is so powerful.
This seems like an album that should come with its own set of FAQs, though. So here is FAQ No. 1: Wait a second, didn’t Halsey just have a baby? How is it that they’ve come up with the least maternal-sounding album of 2021? And didn’t they say they were in love with the baby’s father, too? What memo did she not get about turning all that into blissed-out earth-mama song? There’s an answer for that, and weirdly, it kind of makes sense! Halsey told Apple Music in an interesting new interview that, in part, they made this record to get a lot of lingering feelings off their chest that might seem weirder later on, when Halsey Jr. is giving her mom’s songs a spin. So there’s a lot of pre-partum depression here, possibly not to be continued on a more nurturing sequel. But also, there’s a corollary to this answer, one that does more directly connect the music we’re hearing to what they were going through with a bun in the oven. Which is: What is pregnancy about, if not body horror?
Not to make the album sound completely like some weird amalgam of Taylor-Swift-meets-Clive-Barker. (Although, we do want to hear that record.) There are plenty of moments strewn across it that are much prettier than doomier. The most out-of-body of these is a tender, acoustic, mid-point country-folk ballad, “Darling,” that is so finger-picky in its leanings, Reznor and Ross solicited the help of the most finger-pickiest of them all, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, to provide the sweet accompaniment. And lest the whole thing sound kind of uncommercial, the album has several tracks that use those aforementioned teeth to go for the commercial jugular, albeit in an alt-rock, not Top 40, vein. We count four rockers that will make the kids go crazy if Halsey deigns to do SRO shows at some point. “Easier Than Lying,” the third track in, represents the first entree of drum rolls and fuzz-bass, and when Halsey overlays her vocals in the chorus, it’s definitely as close in this life as Reznor and Ross will ever come to making a Paramore record. “My heart is massive, but it’s empty / A permanent part of me, that innocent artery / Is gasping for some real attention / Some undivided hypertension” — these are classic emo lines to sing along to whether you’re a heartsick 15 or actually on blood pressure meds.
The back-to-back winners “Lilith” and “Girl With a Gun” provide a great study in contrasting rhythm methods that are both keepers. On the former track, famed bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Karriem Riggins give Ross and Reznor a break from their usual two-man-band duties, laying down such a slinky groove that it seems like a crime when the song stops short of three minutes. It’s a deceptively relaxing beat for a song that has Halsey, possibly playing the actual role of Lilith, offering a kind of amusing take on how being a succubus can be, you know, overrated: “It never mattered if I owned you / ‘Cause you’d let anybody with a body control you.” Then, on “Girl With a Gun,” Reznor and Ross retake the controls with a skittery, programmed, polyrhythmic that provides a nervously thrilling backdrop for nearly celestial synth interruptions and the sound of Halsey resisting romance — “I feel lighter in the waistline with no hands around me / No spit in my teeth, no, I’m not your daydream” — but not necessarily swearing off hot sex.
“Honey,” meanwhile, is the most honeyed of the rockers on the album, sounding like a vintage upbeat Cure song, but with Dave Grohl on drums… and it is, in fact, Dave Grohl on drums. “She stings like she means it / She’s mean and she’s mine,” Halsey sings in one of the album’s more celebratory tracks, making it clear that bees sting and swing both ways in this garden. But that erotic glee isn’t exactly the dominant mood of the record — next it’s onto “Whispers,” with the album’s second use of a “Hurt”-reminiscent piano part, and Halsey actually getting down to sotto voce murmurings as she imagines what the world thinks of her: “Why do you need love so badly? / Bet it’s because of her daddy / Bet she was brutal and bratty / Bet that she’ll never be happy.” It might be the next album before we get the answers to all of those FAQs.
Halsey does not suffer fools gladly, as anyone who reads their interviews or full history of social media knows. Fortunately for her songwriting, she doesn’t suffer herself that gladly, either. You might have gotten the idea from a few offhand comments that this could be a fight-the-patriarchy kind of record — which is exactly where the opening number, “The Tradition,” goes, and effectively. But as Halsey proclaimed in their new Apple Music interview, there’s barely a trace of traditional “girl power” on this record, really. There is plenty of contempt to go around in a good number of the songs, mind you, but some of it is self-contempt — the best kind, really, if not for psychiatric purposes, then for remarkable record-making from artists who aren’t afraid to hold up a mirror and relay exactly what they see, regardless of whether it’s the prism and not the person that’s busted. Making this bracingly honest an album, aggressively feminist-forward or not, is really the ultimate riot-woman move. And there’s just enough positive mental health slipping through the cracks to convince you she’s already looking at some of these harrowing emotions through a rear-view and saving more of the self-care thoughts for a truly postpartum sequel.
What we’ve definitely into, at the moment, is a satisfying full season of “When Pop Stars Go Rogue,” an ongoing series about going into the wild without any standard Top 40 provisions. Lorde preceded Halsey with an episode earlier this same month, but ironically, her ballsy move was to lighten up, with the largely breezier-than-air “Solar Power.” Halsey’s rogue-ishness takes her mostly (with exceptions, like the aforementioned “Darling” and “Honey”) into an even darker direction than before. It feels strangely ebullient, though. By naming their shackles, Halsey seems almost free of them, although it’s strong enough work that you don’t want to root for her to move too quickly beyond what makes her pale.
At least we can hope that their next album, whatever motherly or raging tone it takes, marks a continuation of this particular collaboration. Because one thing we learn from “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” besides how much better Halsey is getting all the time, is what’s been missing from Nine Inch Nails all these years: a woman’s touch.