If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power (Universal)
The best thing – though not the only good thing by any means on an album that falls a little short of excellence – about Halsey’s fourth album is the American’s continuing control over tension. It keeps the album and the listener always to the left or the right of comfort and certainty, and maintains a sense of discovery even after the 10th or 12th listen.
That tension at its most basic level is between a kind of firm assertiveness and a chilly disdain, both of them head-butting the line at the juncture of electronic/industrial and electronic/pop, even if from different directions. But it extends beyond this, to a more complex ebb and flow of delicacy and force that is lyrical and musical.
It’s manifested in the clash of sheets of guitars and pouring vocal lines in You Ask For This just as much as in the balancing act of mordant piano and slowly disassembling voice in 1121; as clear in the quasi-metal slurry beneath the almost prancing pop melody not hiding itself in The Lighthouse, as it is in arpeggiated, progressive synths and anxious, regressive vocals in Bells In Santa Fe.
The combination of Halsey and co-producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the Nine Inch Nails duo probably better known now for their film scores) isn’t exactly a clash of opposites. Halsey has long exhibited a streak of tart venom in her songwriting and motherhood may have sharpened that, while the chaps are a lot more than the grimmer twins of agit-rock. However, there is a feeling here that each of them is being asked to stretch some new muscles.
In Lilith, the blurred lines between hip-hop, Zeppelin-ish not really nimble groove, and a deceptively playful Morissette-ish overlay embodies the lyric’s equivocation between wanting to be better, feeling that this is never going to get any better and the disgust that attends to this.
“Tuck a knife with my heart up my sleeve/And fuck like a demon, do it like nothing/I am disgusting, I’ve been corrupted.” But the easiest path, to choose one or other of these directions, is not taken. Instead, the song veers between poles and lets you see where things might go, could go, but for now chooses not to.
Similarly, You Ask For This seems poised for a rushing conclusion, its dream pop build-up likely to run through any wall, but the choice is made to instead let it dissolve into that more Cure-than-shoegaze wall. The effect is to once again blur lines between what we think we know about the people involved.
Yet, at track seven of the 13-song album, just as you may have established that this is a record of moulding cross purposes into something taut with those contradictions, Darling pulls you down to an acoustic, mid-tempo country/folk song that might easily have appeared in one of Taylor Swift’s 2020 lockdown twin albums.
Except, there’s a more compromised core in this story of love almost as a precursor but also alternative to death, than Swift allows. It’s that tension thing again, something it’s worth remembering is captured in the album title of not-quite-opposites: if I can’t have love, I want power.
While this album lacks a couple of genuine killer tracks, the kind of thing that would make a resolution of its contradictions almost irrelevant, that almost works to the record’s benefit. That is, a few clear standouts might tip the balance from a company of equals to stars-and-supporting cast.
But yes, that is an "almost", the extra elevation of outstanding moments would have come in handy in what is, nonetheless, a pretty good record.