Backed by Nine Inch Nails, Halsey Connects Past and Future

Halsey’s fourth album, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” announces its character from its first sounds: slowly tolling piano arpeggios with a few notes flatted into dissonance. It’s an unmistakable echo of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” from 1994, the year Halsey was born. The new song, “The Tradition,” opens a cross-generational, album-length collaboration with a longtime influence: Trent Reznor, who started Nine Inch Nails as a solo studio project in 1987, and Atticus Ross, his partner in Oscar-winning film scores and an official member of Nine Inch Nails since 2016.

Both Halsey — born Ashley Frangipane, who uses she/they pronouns — and Nine Inch Nails have made it their mission to pack the bleaker impulses of human nature into pop-song structures: noisy, desolate, sometimes assaultive tracks that still resolve into neat verses, choruses and hooks. As far back as Halsey’s first single, “Ghost” in 2014, their ominous, echoey electronic production drew comparisons to Nine Inch Nails; in a way, the new album is a visit to the source.

For Reznor and Ross, who supply nearly all the instrumental tracks and produced the album, it’s a chance to work with a new voice, a different melodic sense and a fresh perspective: a young bisexual musician who speaks frankly about mental health. For Halsey, the album is both a homage to 1990s roots and a strategic pivot: away from (seemingly) direct autobiography and toward archetypes.

“Manic,” the album Halsey released in January 2020, was a post-breakup album with ample blame for both Halsey and the ex. Its cover was a close-up of Halsey’s face, and it opened with “Ashley” which observed, “I told you I’d spill my guts/I left you to clean it up.” The new album, instead, establishes some formal distance. Its cover has Halsey holding a baby and seated on a throne with one breast bared, like a surreal royal or religious portrait; they unveiled the image while pregnant with their first child, Ender Ridley Aydin, who was born in July. The first track, “The Tradition,” is a cryptic, third-person tale of lonely young women sold into unhappy lives.

Even when Halsey returns to first-person through most of the album, their lyrics are less confessional, more general, as if they have stepped back from immediate conflicts. In “Bells in Santa Fe,” as tension builds with repeated tones and looming distortion, Halsey ponders their tendencies to approach and avoid, with a reminder that “All of this is temporary.” In “Girl Is a Gun,” the vocal is giggly and teasing, lilting amid rapid-fire percussion, as Halsey flirts — “Let me show you how to touch my trigger” — but also warns, “You’ll be better with a nice girl, darling.”

The album was a long-distance project, with Reznor and Ross recording in Los Angeles and Halsey singing nearly all of the songs at a studio in Turks and Caicos. (They also got remote contributions from Dave Grohl, slamming the drums in “Honey,” and Lindsey Buckingham, picking a folky guitar in “Darling.”) Yet the combination melded because Halsey and Nine Inch Nails have so much in common: skill at generating drama through sheer sound, along with a willingness to admit the worst. Halsey can be self-lacerating. In “Whispers,” which begins with Reznor’s bare-bones piano and turns into a mechanized dirge, they admit, “I sabotage the things I love the most.” In “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” Halsey immediately mocks such self-aggrandizement: “I am not a legend, I’m a fraud.”

And in “You Asked for This” — with Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio piling on multiple overdriven guitars — Halsey questions whether being “a big girl” means trading ambition and adventurousness for boring stability: “Lemonade in crystal glasses/Picket fences, filing taxes.” It starts out hurtling ahead like a Smashing Pumpkins rocker, then drops to half-speed for a finale like a grunge remake of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” But Halsey still craves turbulence. “I want a beautiful boy’s despondent laughter/I want to ruin all my plans,” they sing.

Halsey has been releasing music since their teens, and at 26, they’re gaining a longer view. The album ends with “Ya’burnee,” an Arabic phrase for “you bury me” that implies not wanting to outlive a beloved partner: a lifelong commitment. True to both Halsey and Nine Inch Nails, the song has a morbid streak. But it’s also subdued, willing itself toward calm, as if growing up might not be all bad.

Halsey
“If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”
(Capitol)

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