album review

Halsey’s Rock Album Is Perfect Alchemy

Halsey is a total natural here. And the Nine Inch Nails guys seem anxious to get out of their own comfort zones with Halsey in tow. Photo: Halsey/YouTube

Halsey leapt from internet renown to genuine pop stardom at a moment when the barriers separating IRL and URL fame began to crumble, and it became possible to jump-start a music career by force of not just talent but also the maintenance of a cool and intriguing internet presence. This was the era where Drake frequented Blogspot, and the Weeknd dropped songs anonymously on YouTube; Tyler, the Creator would answer probing inquiries on the early question-and-answer site Formspring; and A$AP Mob and Halsey tightened up aesthetics on Tumblr. There, the singer, born Ashley Frangipane of Middlesex County in North Jersey, spoke with brutal honesty about struggles stemming from having a Black father and white mother; about being bisexual; about body issues; whatever felt pressing and important. Halsey, who uses she/they pronouns, became active in fan communities for pop-rock acts like One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer and released songs of her own, covers and originals revealing an expressive singing voice and a keen sense of what’s percolating in pop. On 2015’s Badlands, their debut album, Halsey was hit-or-miss, though, always in lock step with the sound of the middle of the decade — recall the slippery EDM hybridization of Taylor Swift’s 1989, or the hip-hop-tinged torch songs of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, or the tense synth-rock of Night Visions–era Imagine Dragons — but not always as pointed and confident as the defiant (if cloying) millennial anthem “New Americana.” The style was there; the substance could use a bit of fine-tuning, a classic Tumblr dilemma. After working through trap-pop vibes and heartbreaking life changes on 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom — the Reputation to Badlands1989, in a way — Halsey stepped her game up on last year’s Manic, a more assured collection full of lacerating honesty about the highs and lows of bipolar disorder but too stuffed with songs and ideas that didn’t complement each other.

Since the last album, Halsey is changing, in art and in life outside it. She started seeing screenwriter Alev Aydin; the couple’s first child, a boy named Ender Ridley (who absolutely must grow up loving sci-fi), was born in mid-July, a windfall in a harrowing journey with endometriosis. Two weeks prior, billboards touting new music sprung up in major cities, a callback to the lengthy stretch of 2015 and 2016 when Badlands was advertised with wall murals and billboards around Williamsburg, Brooklyn, since “Halsey” is a street in Kings County as much as it’s an anagram for “Ashley.” Black and white with a blood-red stripe down the middle, the new billboards announced the name of the fourth Halsey album — If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power — one that would forego the protracted campaigns of singles and videos heralding Halsey albums in the past. The small print said more, touting production from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a good get for Halsey, who entrusted the sound of her earlier albums to a cadre of pop, rock, and hip-hop maestros, including Greg Kurstin (Foo Fighters, Sia, Beck), Ricky Reed (Lizzo, Kesha, twenty one pilots), and their ex-boyfriend Lido (Jaden Smith, Chance the Rapper, Chika), though some of Manic is self-produced. This is also an unusual moment for Reznor and Ross, Golden Globe– and Academy Award–winning film-score legends who, since 2016, compose the core of Nine Inch Nails, industrial-rock institution whose fearless exploration of the darkness in Reznor’s life and whose perfect balance of beautiful melodies and abrasive sonic textures yielded classics like “Hurt,” “The Day the World Went Away,” and “The Hand That Feeds.”

Trent Reznor doesn’t often endeavor to produce whole albums for other artists. It blew up in his face in the late-’90s, when he was tapped to assist with recording Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar after signing the band to his Nothing Records, which had put out the debut, Portrait of an American Family, before it. Drugs, acrimony, and toxicity hampered the sessions, but the album went on to sell millions, reviled by some but revered by others as a touchstone of millennial-youth rage, though it would also trigger a smoldering cold war between Reznor and Manson (that continues to this day). Nine Inch Nails persevered, and Trent cleaned up; by the 2000s, his band, which had long been something of a one-man army and a chronicle of his addiction, became a beefier, more versatile unit, capable of muscular alt-rock stompers like “Only,” delicate detours into ambient music like the Ghosts series, and the chilly darkwave mood of “Copy of A.” Working with Ross on film scores, Reznor began to accrue a Hollywood cachet he’d seemed disinterested in for much of his career as a gifted if troubled and sporadically hermitic auteur. It is still strange to see him on red carpets, the man whose contempt for fame is minted in 1999’s “Starfuckers, Inc.” Stranger still, Reznor topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart last year on a technicality, thanks to the Ghosts sample in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” Working with Halsey is the result of a patient turn, though if you heard Miley Cyrus covering “Head Like a Hole” as Ashley O in Black Mirror, you knew it wouldn’t be long before a vocalist put in the call for beats from Trent.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power seeks and finds a common ground between the gothic industrial kings and the pop star. Halsey’s voice suits the harsher textures present in these songs surprisingly well; it’s a blast hearing them ditch the sheen of older albums, to splash headfirst into the thick of the rock sound we saw glimpses of in songs like “Experiment on Me,” from the soundtrack to Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn. Halsey is a total natural here, unafraid to share deep, dark thoughts with the listener, ready to cut loose amid the din of sinister synths and punishing guitars. The Nails guys seem anxious to get out of their own comfort zones with Halsey in tow. As much as I Want Power traffics in the sounds you might expect it to, given the players present — the tinkling keyboard lines that unsettle with unpredictable melodic turns, the disorienting drum programming, the stark piano balladry — it also feels like an opportunity to sidestep the notoriously chilly sound of Nine Inch Nails. The biting, cathartic “You Asked for This” kicks off with a drumbeat reminiscent of early Interpol and lays out a sweet shoegaze riff more in line with the M83 catalogue than anything any of these artists has made in the past. “Darling” is a plaintive folk song revisiting painful memories, anchored by a delicately picked acoustic guitar the credits reveal to be played by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham. Scanning the credits, you’ll also notice Dave Grohl, session mavericks Pino Palladino and Karriem Riggins, storied rock-and-roll mixer Alan Moulder, and members of Meat Beat Manifesto, TV on the Radio, and the Bug, emissaries from every corner of Reznor’s extended universe.

These collaborators free Halsey from chasing the sound of modernity — although, on a certain level, it is a savvy move, amid the advance of late-20th-century nostalgia creeping into popular music, to go directly to the source of some of those sounds — and offer aesthetic cohesion and an originality the singer’s catalogue of astute and trendy mainstream hits sometimes sacrificed to maintain footing on the radio. I Want Power sees the pop star delving into uncomfortable points in their history and pushing back against mistreatment of women. “Whispers” gives voice to intrusive thoughts that tell us we’re less than we are: “Sabotage the things you love the most / Camouflage so you can feed the lie that you’re composed.” “The Tradition” is a look inside the psychological fallout from subjugation and sexual assault: “Take what you want, take what you can / Take what you please, don’t give a damn / Ask for forgiveness, never permission.” On “Darling,” the struggle to find a useful regimen of psychotropics leads down troubling pathways: “Maybe I’ll be better if I take my meds / Ain’t a double header if you lose your head / I tried a medication that I bought instead / It’s working for a little but there’s not much left.” “The Lighthouse” is a murder ballad seemingly told from the perspective of a siren of myth who leads a sailor to a watery demise. The coda — where Trent sings of crashing waves in a whisper, the only time you can make out his voice on the album — lightly implies that Halsey has killed the producer. On paper, this album is a chronicle of falling in love and navigating a first pregnancy, but in practice, the writing is pliable and relatable. The melodies are impressive. Sometimes, the pop and goth stars strain too hard to push each other and land on a lukewarm idea, like the riff in “The Lighthouse” that sounds like Imagine Dragons or the Cure pastiche of “Honey”; other times, the union lands on a perfect marriage of the disparate worlds of the singer and their producers, like “I am not a woman, I’m a god,” at once a sleek synth-pop bop and a feisty Nails banger that could have just as easily lived on 2013’s Hesitation Marks. If I Can’t Have Love is many things to many people: a natural progression from the darkly pretty sonics of “Shit Mirror,” the opener from Nails’ Bad Witch EP; the proof Trent could have a pop career if he wanted; an introduction to the crown prince of depressive music for a new generation; and the best Halsey album.

Halsey’s Rock Album Is Perfect Alchemy