Illustration by Ben Beechener
Halsey has long been proving her musical prowess, delivering poignant and punchy concept albums such as 2015’s Badlands (a dystopian dark pop album reflecting their own interiority) and its connected follow up, 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (which showcased a sweeping, queer, revisionist take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Their last album, Manic (2020), was a departure from fantasy landscapes and fictional characters, proving to be a huge success regardless as it debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 charts. However, with their 2021 album, strikingly titled If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey, who recently became a mother, made a return to the familiar ground of conceptual music, offering a dark grunge-pop feast of an album charting the ‘joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth’.
Preceding the music itself, however, was a trailer (CWs for blood, violence, death and scenes some may find frightening) that promised much more than just another album. The stunning visuals were only the prologue to an IMAX film experience set in a dark medieval setting that complemented Halsey’s lyrical exploration of motherhood, autonomy and body horror. Matching this came the album’s notable cover, Halsey in a throne cradling an infant, clearly inspired by the Renaissance painting Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels by Jean Fouquet. Despite their bold decision to release no singles in the run up to the album’s release, this bold visual direction still stoked the flames of fan excitement.
Oh, the loneliest girl in town is bought for pennies a price
The album opens with a slow piano melody that begins ‘The Tradition’, a haunting song with powerful lyrics that set the precedent for the album’s atmosphere and lyrical content, sending a chill down your spine as the words settle over you. The tempo then ramps up for the chorus that instructs you to ‘take what you please, don’t give a damn’. While the chorus may allude to empowering women, to call ‘The Tradition’ simply a song about female empowerment would be a disservice to the dark tradition Halsey sings about, particularly in its opening verse. The timeless piano backing and medieval atmosphere of the track only serve to emphasis the grotesquely long standing ‘tradition’ of female exploitation and the tireless struggle to fight back.
I’m not your daydream
After the dark delights of the previous tracks, ‘Girl is a Gun’ is something akin to the large inhale you take after being submerged underwater, a breath of fresh air. In fact, this song is so sonically different to the rest of the album– with its synthpop backing track that inevitably brings on an urge to dance around your room (well, for me anyway)– that it almost feels in a league of its own. However, while the album’s songs vary from eerie ballads to acoustic tunes and into the realm of pop rock, it’s the powerful lyrics—in this case the pointed opening lines ‘I feel lighter in the waistline with no hands around me’—that unify ‘Girl is a Gun’ to the rest of the album’s overarching themes.
I’m disruptive, I’ve been corrupted and by now, I don’t need a fucking introduction
Other standout songs from this bold new endeavour from Halsey include ‘Lilith’. This track sees Halsey assume the role of the biblical mother demon, in a style reminiscent of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’s obvious use of iconic literature, adding further layers to the exploration of motherhood, the body and autonomy.
‘Honey’, a song she said in a recent Instagram live was casually created as she demonstrated her creative process to her younger brother, cements the singer/songwriter as a powerhouse artist. Supported by excellent drum backing provided by Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl (and, oh, what I would give to see a live performance of this particular track), ‘Honey’ is described by Halsey as a song about a ‘wild girl’. With lyrics such as ‘she stings like she means it, she’s mean and she’s mine’, it feels like the perfect evolutionary follow up to HFK’s ‘Strangers’.
Some of my personal favourites also include ‘1121’, titled after the date Halsey discovered she was pregnant with their new born, Ender; the haunting ‘Whispers’; and the fierce ‘I am not a woman, I’m a god’.
Darling you will bury me, before I bury you
Rounding out the album is the concluding track ‘Ya’aburnee’, an Arabic expression declaring “one’s hope that they will die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them”. With love-drenched lyrics such as ‘wrap me in a wedding ring’ coupled with the fact that Halsey’s new-born baby boy is named after the Arabic word for ‘rare’ and, the album’s exploration of pregnancy and motherhood, this final song is a love letter to their child as well as partner, Alev Aydin. This feels particularly poignant after Halsey’s openness about their struggles with fertility in tracks such as ‘More’ on Manic (2020). Stripped back musical accompaniment provides a dreamlike quality to the track that allows Halsey’s vocal skill to shine through this slower, gentle tune, one of my favourites of the album that I could easily listen to on repeat in moments of searching for tranquillity. The tenderness of Halsey’s love couldn’t be more apparent here and, after the emotional journey listeners experience throughout the rest of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, ‘Ya’aburnee’ is a particularly bittersweet but nonetheless heart-warming song to end on.
What I love about Halsey’s music is how immersive and personal it is, with each era reflecting a different aspect of their life. Badlands brought us a dystopia that doubled as Halsey’s mental landscape. And, with this latest album, Halsey draws on new concepts close to her, fitting them into a dark medieval landscape. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power gives fans not only a distinct new visual experience, but one also accompanied by bold song writing and music to match. It’s a brilliant new addition to her discography.