Earlier this month, Halsey released a video that followed them walking barefoot through the immaculate halls of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, eyeing historic paintings of the Madonna and Child before revealing the baroque, sacrosanct cover art for their fourth album, If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power. The image depicts Halsey, who just gave birth in July, holding a baby, their left breast exposed, in an ornate portrait of a mother modeled after Jean Fouquet’s Gothic diptych Virgin & Child Surrounded by Angels.
They’d set the scene. If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power is intended as high drama — a supremely theatrical, if slightly overwrought, concept album based on what they describe as “the dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore.” The paradox obviously isn’t new: FKA Twigs recast the story of Mary Magdalene on her stunner of an LP from 2019 while the actual pop icon Madonna has played with virtue and desire throughout her career. What makes Halsey’s take compelling is that it’s distinctly corporal, tied to the physical experience of pregnancy and childbirth from an artist who notes that their body “has belonged to the world in many different ways” over the years. “The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully,” they wrote on Instagram.
Sonically, the project has been a mystery. Halsey released no singles, upending the strategy of testing the water with careful song rollout. Instead, they sparked the rabid curiosity of the Internet by sharing that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross produced the entire thing and offering a dramatic trailer for a Colin Tilley-directed IMAX film that’s being released around the country. The scenes, like the artwork, mix horror and medieval grandeur, with Halsey in the central role as a pregnant young queen. The album starts with the spectacle of the film in mind—not a surprise given the two Oscars shared by its producers — and opens on the eerie, ominous piano chords of “The Tradition.” It then transitions into the swelling darkness of “Bells In Santa Fe” — powered by what the credits playfully list as a “menacing beat” from The Bug’s Kevin Martin. “It’s not a happy ending,” Halsey warbles over the signature Reznor-Ross industrial fuzz that closes out the track.
Back to back, the songs are somewhat of a heavy-handed introduction to an album that’s at its most interesting not when it’s signaling its depth or using foreboding production as a surrogate for intensity. Instead, the music works best when Halsey follows their natural pop tendencies down new experimental paths. There’s an intriguing attempt at going full Nine Inch Nails on the berserk hyper-pop of “Easier Than Lying,” but If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power really hits its stride with the skittering trippiness of “Girl Is A Gun.” Halsey seems blissfully untethered thereafter: Their voice soars over the serrated guitars of “You Asked For This” and the prickling pop-punk of “Honey,” built over the thud of David Grohl on drums. His cameo, along with Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar melody on “Darling,” fits into the zeitgeist-y interest in throwback rock while reinforcing Halsey’s alt-pop credentials.
From the dystopian society of her 2015 debut Badlands to the modernized Romeo & Juliet storyline running through its 2017 followup Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey has always thought in concepts. Here, their conceptual ideas work in the abstract. Though Halsey’s been candid about their experiences with miscarriages and endometriosis, they don’t confront the dichotomies of childbirth and bodily ownership in the fully confessional approach that worked so well on last year’s Manic, the first album they wrote as Ashley Nicolette Frangipane rather than the Halsey alter-ego. They let different personas slip around in the lyrics—the overtly sexual on “You Asked For This,” the chillingly vulnerable on “1121,” the unapologetic on “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God.” (“I am not a woman, I’m a god I am not a martyr, I’m a problem I am not a legend, I’m a fraud keep your heart, cause I already got one,” they sing.)
Halsey does seem to find some resolution on the tender “Ya’aburnee,” named for an Arabic term expressing the desire to die before the one you love. It’s a delicate, heart-pulverizing ending that hints at something primal that some might recognize in the moments after the traumatic, transformative ordeal of childbirth—a crushing sense of self-surrender. It’s a song that, like much of the album, is more evocative than direct. I Can’t Have Love I Want Power doesn’t contain any sweeping declarations that untangle the Gordian knots of motherhood or impermanence, nor can one really expect there to be. Rather than describing them outright, Halsey is processing the beauty and brutality of such experiences, and that’s an impressive kind of labor on its own.