Halsey is 26 years old and has already lived a handful of pop-star lives. She has served as the brash voice of an rising generation, on “New Americana” and “Castle”; become a signature voice on top 40 radio, with songs like The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and their own “Without Me”; morphed into a go-to guest star with hits like Benny Blanco’s “Eastside” and Marshmello’s “Be Kind”; and nudged outside the walls of pop, with songs like “Nightmare” and “You Should Be Sad.”
The lattermost comes from Halsey’s 2020 album, Manic, a project that demanded that they be taken seriously as an auteur as well as a hitmaker, thanks to its forward-thinking songwriting and cross-genre curiosity. That album was released barely a year and a half ago, and with fourth LP If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey has already blown by its wildest ambitions.
All 13 songs on Halsey’s new album were produced and co-written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — the current central figures of Nine Inch Nails, who have recently been collecting Oscars for their composing work. Their involvement with If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power underlines its intentions as a Serious Project, but the pair ultimately complements Halsey’s growth as a songwriter, vocalist and all-around star that commands the moment. Within the context of Reznor and Ross’ twitching, intoxicating soundscapes, Halsey documents their experiences with pregnancy, childbirth and new motherhood — but also their reflections on love, lust, solitude and happiness, capturing both the main ideas and subtle details of who they are. The result is a significant personal and professional achievement, and one of the best albums of the year.
Every song on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is worthwhile, although we already have our favorites. Here is an early ranking of every song on Halsey’s biggest and best opus to date:
The voice in the back of Halsey’s head defines “Whispers,” synths and beats bouncing off of each other as Halsey sings about the push and pull of her thoughts as she strains for simple pleasures and prolonged understanding. The whispered vocals here are inspired and effectively jarring, prodding the listener awake if they get lost in the production details.
12. “The Lighthouse”
Astute listeners will identify Reznor’s voice, finally emerging from behind the scenes, at the tail end of “The Lighthouse,” sounding distant while joining Halsey for the outro and eventually getting swept away in guitar noise. Before he arrives, the track finds Halsey mixing romantic accounts with nautical mysticism, tempting fate by presenting broken memories and daring themselves to make some more.
While album opener “The Tradition” utilized a somber piano movement and little else to match Halsey’s vocals, “1121” builds around the piano, adding programming and synths until reaching a cinematic effect that recalls Reznor’s and Ross’ actual cinema work. Meanwhile, Halsey delivers one of the album’s most straightforward choruses, suggesting a possible future at radio for the song — or, at least, a rousing end-credits placement.
10. “The Tradition”
Beginning the album with the intense, stripped-down “The Tradition” nods to the aspirations of Halsey’s project: over a piano line that stumbles toward resolution, they sing about a woman’s presumed loneliness and fear as what society presumes to be a “flesh amnesiac.” Reznor’s influence is loud and clear, but so is the urgency of Halsey’s vocal approach and songwriting.
9. “You asked for this”
When we’ve been longing for the freedom of adulthood, how do we grapple with its evolving problems, desires and responsibilities? “You asked for this” lets Halsey prod at the question while pitted against a wall of distortion: TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek stepped up wit the guitars here, constructing a heavy alt-rock palette that Halsey throws themselves into with cynicism and mournfulness.
After believing that “love is just a currency,” as they put it on the album closer “Ya’aburnee,” Halsey has found purpose in protecting her child: “You know, I swear I’d give you anything,” they declare matter-of-factly. Similar to “The Tradition,” “Ya’aburnee” bookends the album by wiping away all clutter from Halsey’s words, with Reznor and Ross providing just a dollop of guitar and programming to support this look-but-now-found testimony.
Following the cathartic fury of “Easier Than Lying” on the track list, “Lilith” dials down the tension with the help of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Karriem Riggins, veteran players for artists like Common and D’angelo. Halsey treats the song like a self-reflective groove (“By now, I don’t need no help to be destructive,” she concludes) and nimbly rolls along with the project’s tempo change, demonstrating the sonic diversity of the album within its first third.
6. “Easier Than Lying”
Halsey songs like “Nightmare” and their Machine Gun Kelly collaboration “Forget Me Too” serve as precursors to a flared-up rock song like “Easier Than Lying,” although the approach here is more nuanced, with Halsey clearly drawing upon Nine Inch Nails’ industrial production and unfiltered anger as inspiration. In the context of the album, “Easier Than Lying” is Halsey’s “March of the Pigs,” and should be similarly electric live.
“Honey” acts as the de facto “pop-punk song” on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, but if the song plays into the latest trend, what a rush it is to have it happen with Reznor playing guitar, Dave Grohl playing drums and Halsey rocking the mic and reflecting on the whirlwind of new motherhood (“She’s hell in a basket, just making a racket / I love every second, it’s f–king fantastic”). The song crystallizes the album’s ability to take a standard blueprint and create something fresh and exciting.
On a song in which Reznor and Ross provide production and Lindsey Buckingham stops by to finger-pick his legendary guitar, Halsey is undoubtedly the MVP. The breathlessly gorgeous “Darling” provides clarity to the pop star through motherhood, and features some of the strongest lyrical passages on the album — “Really can’t remember where I left my spine,” “I’ll kidnap all the stars and I will keep them in your eyes,” “Only you have shown me how to love being alive” — all of which Halsey navigates with the gentle comfort of a restless soul finally at peace.
3. “Girl Is a Gun”
On the racing, jittery “Girl is a Gun,” Reznor and Ross are joined by Meat Beat Manifesto’s Jack Dangers to assist with a tidal wave of programming, beats and synths skittering around Halsey’s voice as her thoughts and lyrical phrases collide into one another. What could have been disorienting instead becomes virtuosic, a towering cross-genre achievement compacted into two-and-a-half minutes; simply put, you won’t hear many pop songs this daring or accomplished the rest of the year.
2. “I am not a woman, I’m a god”
There are streaks of vulnerability in “I am not a woman, I’m a god,” as Halsey muses upon fulfillment and identity, but the chorus and synth progression swallow up lingering doubts and spit them back out as a hard-nosed anthem. Perhaps more than any other song on the album, “I am not a woman, I’m a god” shows the value of the Halsey-Reznor-Ross team: in the wrong hands, this could have sounded like an anonymous crowd-pleaser, but Halsey’s subtle vocal flourishes and the restrained but forceful production make the whole affair mesmerizing.
1. “Bells in Santa Fe”
“All of this is temporary,” Halsey repeats in a murmur on “Bells in Santa Fe”; elsewhere, they shrug, “Maybe I could hold you in the dark / You wouldn’t even notice me depart.” As they reflect on fleeting connection, The Bug’s Kevin Martin provides Reznor and Ross with a “menacing beat” (that’s how he’s credited in the liner notes) that traps Halsey and thrills the listener, a wholly impressive synthesis of clanging electronica and arresting pop craft.