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“I am not a woman, I’m a god!” declares Halsey on her exhilarating fourth album. It’s a grunge-pop whoosh of tormented sonic melodrama released one day ahead of the eponymous film in which the new parent promises to explore “the lifelong social labyrinth of sexuality and birth”. In the experience of this bisexual, bi-racial, bipolar and gender-fluid artist, that translates as a series of “the greatest horror stories never told”. Advance clips reveal fairy tale themes and classic pop video tropes but she carries it all off with wild flair, filmed running through dry-iced forests in lavish crinoline gowns, her eye sockets blackened with kohl. We also see her heavily pregnant, in a white nightgown smeared with blood. Slow-motion shots of the artist tumbling deep underwater recall those in Beyoncé’s equally confessional Lemonade.
Born Ashley Frangipane in New Jersey in 1994, Halsey began her career with two albums structured around fictional narratives, before shifting gear with 2020’s boldly autobiographical Manic. It was a record whose chaotic mix of moods and genres reflected its creator’s frankly addressed messy struggles with anger, identity and self-acceptance. It also saw her calling out her rapper ex for narcissism, and duetting with Alanis Morissette, whose female rage was patronisingly dismissed in the 1990s. By bringing a darker, racketier attitude to major-label pop, Halsey follows in the footsteps of artists P!nk and Grimes.
If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power finds her furthering that quest. Production from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails) brings a serrated edge of industrial rock to the catchy synth hooks. So get set for the metallic rattle of basement bar drums and some jagged little guitar riffs, heavy on the distortion. On “Easier than Lying”, the thrash guitar hits the reckless pace of a gamer’s car chase (complete with sirens) as the singer snarls about being disruptive: “I just f*** things up, if you notice...” runs the chorus.
Reznor has always used lyrics to air his masochism and self-hatred. He’s certainly encouraged Halsey to do the same and IICHLIWP is peppered with both qualities. So on the propulsive stand-out song, “I am Not a Woman, I’m a God”, the grandiosity of the title line is swiftly undercut with “I am not a legend, I’m a fraud”. On “Girl is a Gun” (which sounds a bit like it’s been remixed by The Prodigy), the singer tells a lover he’d “be better off with a nice girl, darling”. Halsey becomes the victim on “Honey” about a female love who is “mean and mine”. Against the tender piano of “1121” (which will remind you that Reznor also wrote the sentimental soundtrack to Pixar’s Soul), Halsey sings of having a body to bury “the parts of myself I hated”. The gothic imagery continues against the countrified pickin’ of “Darling”, which features ruminations on a graveyard and the artist’s suspicion “maybe I’ll be better if I take my meds”. The subject of mortality is thrown into more zen relief by the banger “Bells of Santa Fe”.
At times, listeners may wish Halsey would push her New Jersey gal’s vocals into more interesting registers. More sonic and lyrical experimentation could allow the songs to make a deeper mark. But this record is a definite power-up from an artist who carries, as promised, “a knife with the heart on my sleeve”.