Billie Eilish’s unpredictable sophomore project solidifies her status as a visionary and versatile artist.
Last time she was the bad guy, the monster under your bed, revelling in the stuff of nightmares. Now, two years after her award-winning debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie Eilish returns with a softer, more personal album. Stretching across pop, R&B, folk, rock and even bossa nova, Happier Than Ever is a mellow, understated project that showcases the mature subtlety and meticulous attention to detail that Eilish and her producer and brother FINNEAS bring to their music.
Despite the record’s serenity when compared with its predecessor, Happier Than Ever is far from relaxed. Rather, an uneasy malaise seeps into its 16 tracks, perceptible in the haunting vocals, the sparse instrumentation and the lyrics exploring fame, body image and abuse, as well as love and growing up.
Eilish opens the album with the peaceful, fuzzy thrum of ‘Getting Older’, a track which serves as an update on her life since her rapid rise to stardom two years ago. The 19-year-old singer balances the negative with the positive, admitting, ‘Things I once enjoyed / just keep me employed now,’ while remaining resilient: ‘I’m happier than ever, / at least that’s my endeavour, / to keep myself together and prioritize my pleasure’.
This optimism continues on ‘Billie Bossa Nova’, a balmy love song embellished with an easy samba rhythm and soft, jazzy guitar, and on ‘my future’, a gorgeous, gently soulful track about Eilish’s eagerness to live the rest of her life.
Altogether, the first half of the track list is incredibly tight; from the percussive exhilaration of ‘Oxytocin’ to the romantic piano ballad, ‘Halley’s Comet’, every song has its own distinct identity. Perhaps the strongest of the set, alongside ‘my future’, is the stripped-back minimalism of ‘Lost Cause’, whose dull, muted percussion and echoing vocals lend it a unique sense of cavernous space.
It’s as we enter the latter half of the album that the tone darkens and Eilish speaks plainly about the horrors of fame. Over the uneasy, wailing instrumental of ‘Not My Responsibility’, she addresses the judgements made about her based on her appearance and clothing, challenging, ‘Is my value based only on your perception? / Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?’
Eilish ensures that every track on the album has something to say. She contemplates mortality in morose, Lana Del Rey-esque vocals on ‘Everybody Dies’, before calling out the abuse of teenage girls on the cool, featherweight folk of ‘Your Power’. But despite their hefty subject matter, these sleepy tracks don’t offer a great deal musically and, following ‘Halley’s Comet’ and two spoken-word numbers, they unfortunately stretch out a lengthy lull in the album’s energy.
The moody ‘NDA’ therefore arrives as a welcome shot of adrenaline. While not boasting one of Eilish’s strongest melodies either, her use of Auto-Tune, rumbling, oppressive percussion and an eerie twanging motif ramps up the urgency as we build towards the album’s climax. Eilish sustains this tension through the steely pop of ‘Therefore I Am’ while also delivering one of her catchiest choruses.
But it’s at the incendiary apotheosis of the record’s title track that her exasperation finally explodes into anger. With its tranquil, acoustic opening and the sheer, unexpected force of its finale, the song is reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers’ 2020 album closer, ‘This Is the End’. All the subdued rage that seethes beneath the surface of Happier Than Ever culminates in Eilish screaming ‘just fucking leave me alone!’ over this noisy rock crescendo.
But unlike Bridgers, Eilish chooses to end the record with a whimper rather than a bang. Not quite hopeful but far from cynical, the wispy final track ‘Male Fantasy’ sees Eilish unable to tell if she is really over a past relationship. After an album full of powerful statements and earnest confessions, there’s something strangely touching about a track that doesn’t quite know what it wants to say.
It’s a fittingly unresolved ending to an album that never quite puts you at ease, in spite of the down-beat sleepiness that cloaks much of the track list. With this relentless, intangible feeling of being on edge, Happier Than Ever is, in many ways, a more nuanced, if not a more exciting, record than Eilish’s first LP. Given the arresting imagery, heavy, driving production and instantly recognisable hooks that secured her debut’s popularity, opting for pastel shades and a muted sonic palette was perhaps the boldest move she could have made.
Listen to Happier Than Ever: