REVIEW | ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’: Nine Inch Nails-Assisted Rock With A Feminist Twist

(nb: Halsey uses they/she pronouns, for the purpose of this article, ‘they’ pronouns are used exclusively for Halsey. Any use of ‘she’ pronouns is in reference to the characters within this album)

After both their previous album ‘Manic’, and their debut album ‘Badlands’ peaked at the number 2 spot on the Billboard 200, Halsey’s ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ was set to debut at the top spot, on a week largely devoid of any other big-name releases. Then, two days after they dropped the album, Kanye West – or at least, Kanye West’s label – surprise released ‘Donda’; an album that regrettably featured the homophobic Dababy and, Marilyn Manson (who stands credibly accused of sexual assault). ‘Donda’, despite having two less days than Halsey’s LP to climb the charts, and despite being a far less cohesive statement, easily reached the top spot; relegating Halsey, for the third time, to the runner up spot. It’s the sort of tale that could easily be spun into the sort of fiery, righteously angry, furious feminist anthem that ‘If I Can’t Have Love’ is filled with.

‘If I Can’t Have Love’, the fourth full length project of Halsey’s to date – co-produced by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame – is a grand, dark and endlessly dramatic alt-rock, pop-punk crossover that uses tails of medieval female suffering to convey “the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth” and remind us that we haven’t made as much progress on gender issues as we’d like to think. While not a magnum opus, and not reaching the highs of Nine Inch Nail’s best work (though ‘Easier Than Lying’ comes close), ‘If I Can’t Have Love…’ is easily the fullest realisation of Halsey’s talent and vision to date. It’s subversive, cutting-edge, bravely uncommercial and genuinely insightful in a way Halsey desperately tried to be on their debut ‘Badlands’ without ever fully sticking the landing.

Opener ‘The Tradition’ offers the closest thing this album has to a mission statement: “Ask for forgiveness, never permission”. ‘If I Can’t Have Love’ sees Halsey embody an all-powerful woman, spurned by the masses and ruthless as a result, a la Elizabeth Bathory (the 16th Century, brutally violent Hungarian noblewoman). Except unlike the sadistic Bathory, Halsey’s character’s anger is righteous; a response to men who buy women only to sell them as soon as they find female-emotion to be burdensome. As depicted on the album cover – which sees Halsey, breast exposed, holding a baby – Halsey’s character has ascended to the crown and while embracing her femininity, plans to use her power just as brutally and remorselessly as the men who came before her. Women, we are told, can do anything a man can; good or bad.

Halsey’s fourth studio album works so well because of how conceptually airtight it is; for the first time, the stories within Halsey’s music don’t begin and end at the start and finish of each song, but unfurl with each new addition to the track-list. By the end of the thirteenth, and final track, ‘Ya’aburnee’, Halsey has drawn listeners into a gripping and fully immersive dystopian world; one centred around a frighteningly captivating anti-hero.

While never doing so with this level of commitment before, Halsey – ever since they burst onto the scene – has tried to build worlds on their albums. Their star-making debut ‘Badlands’, offered Halsey’s own take on Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’; a dark, minimalist pop statement conveying dark truths (‘Colors’), brutal self-reflections (‘Gasoline’) and plenty of put-downs of bad men (‘Hold Me Down’). What stopped these songs from reaching their full potential was Halsey’s frustratingly dogged commitment to adhering to pop conventions. Now, with the help of Reznor and Ross, Halsey has finally achieved a sound as daring and subversive as the lyrics that accompany it. With the exception a few acoustic cuts – that, for all their faults, serve as necessary stop-gaps from the rest of the album’s searing sonic pallet – ‘If I Can’t Have Love’ is a remarkably cohesive and impressive fourth effort; a quantum leap of ambition from previous works.

Score: 7.0

Best Tracks: ‘The Tradition’, ‘Easier Than Lying’, ‘I am not a woman, I’m a god’

Worst Track: ‘Ya’aburnee’

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