Just two years ago, Billie Eilish was on top of the world. With an instantly recognizable mop of neon green and jet black hair, Billie captured the muted angst and somber candor of Gen Z. From “bad guy” and “all the good girls go to hell” to “listen before i go” and “bury a friend,” Billie’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go, dominated the year. She, and her brother-producer FINNEAS, swept the 2020 Grammys making Billie the youngest artist in history to win all four of the General Field categories in the same year. Now, after a rise to the greatest heights of pop stardom and a tour canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Billie has grown up. Happier Than Ever, her sophomore studio album, finds 19-year-old Billie grappling with fame in the social media era, unpacking trauma by way of abusive power dynamics, and exploring her relationship with sex and the very concept of maturity. Joined once again by her brother on production duties, Happier Than Ever is a gripping and quietly transformative addition to Billie’s œuvre.
When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go arrived when Billie was just 17-years-old. Two years later, at age 19, the intensity of growing up informs every track on Happier Than Ever. Your late teenage years are filled with the sharpest learning curves; it’s a compact time period of life lessons that shape who you are and who you want to be. With Happier Than Ever’s introductory track, “Getting Older,” Billie exercises her trademark frankness and vulnerability over gentle plucking synths. “Can’t shake the feeling that I’m just bad at healing / And maybe that’s the reason every sentence sounds rehearsed,” she sings. Lyrically, “Getting Older” simultaneously summarizes and foreshadows not only the subjects of the album’s later songs but also the evolution of Billie’s approach to some of those subjects. The muted soundscape utilized on the opening track appears in different iterations throughout the album, but the menacing tone of the following track allows for some early variety. “I Didn’t Change My Number,” a dark affair accented by growls and barks from Billie’s pet dog, finds the singer quietly holding onto her power and choosing when and when not to engage. The growls and barks emphasize Billie’s swaggering delivery and the bite of lyrics like “I didn’t change my number / I only changed who I believe in.” Like “I Didn’t Change My Number,” “Oxytocin” is one of the few moments Billie returns to the darker industrial sounds of her debut album. On “Oxytocin” she balances a breathy falsetto in the chorus against raspy dips into her lower register in the pre-chorus. That contrast, as well as the robust drums throughout the track, results in a sonic experience that parallels the “love hormone” that the song is named after. It’s apprehensive, lustful, and erratic all at once.
Some of the most interesting moments on Happier Than Ever come when Billie reaches to fantasy, religion, and science to ground her songwriting. “Billie Bossa Nova” finds her crooning through a fantasy of secret hotel rendezvous with her significant other. This is an affair that’s characterized by fake names and complete secrecy, but it’s a love affair, nonetheless. Billie smartly places “my future,” the album’s lead single which dropped exactly one year before the full release of the album, directly after “Billie Bossa Nova.” The contrast that is achieved here is one of fantasy versus reality; “my future,” a jazzy ode to the many years Billie has ahead of her, is about the true love affair that has allowed her to become happier than ever. On “GOLDWING,” Billie opens with a hymn before launching into a metaphor-driven track where she likens the purity of young women in the music industry to that of angels. As an artist that has spent the better part of her tween and teen years in the highly exploitative music industry, this makes for one of the more straightforward moments of growth where Billie is imparting the wisdom she has accrued on the young women following in her footsteps. There’s also “Halley’s Comet,” a lovestruck ballad named after the famed comet that is only visible from Earth every 75 years or so. While “Halley’s Comet” is certainly heartfelt, it’s also quite boring. This is an issue that plagues Happier Than Ever; Billie and FINNEAS have shifted to much more muted and subdued soundscapes that only emphasize Billie’s barley-above-a-whisper approach to singing. Sure, this gives the lyrics a prime opportunity to shine, but with everything being so subtle it’s hard for some of these songs to truly command attention. Happier Than Ever also stumbles when it comes to the sequencing of the songs. There are some moments of genius where songs are paired perfectly to create a strong narrative and sonic relationship. On the other hand, there are moments where the sequencing is a bit confusing. “Lost Cause” feels slightly out of place between “GOLDWING” and “Halley’s Comet,” and “Male Fantasy,” an intense track about real and fake love as mirrored by the concept of the male gaze, should have been placed anywhere but the end of the album.
The crowning jewel of this album is indubitably the title track. It’s a popular (and correct) opinion to feel that the second half of “Happier Than Ever” is the superior part, but it cannot exist without the part that precedes it. For one, the shift from forlorn balladry to a grunge-influenced concoction of guitars, anguished screams, and belts is the most obvious example of the growth that the album is about. Furthermore, the more specific Billie gets with her lyrics, the more impassioned her vocal performance becomes and the harsher the production gets. It’s easily the best song on the album, and one of the best songs Billie has released so far. “Happier Than Ever” is preceded by “Therefore I Am,” a deliciously cocky pre-album single that both reaches for the philosophical and the personal. When combined, the titles form the phrase “therefore, I am happier than ever.” This phrase is the natural landing point from the journey explored in the preceding pair of songs: “Your Power” and “NDA.” The former, which I named one of the best songs of the year so far, is a harrowing tale of abuse of power in a romantic relationship. With “NDA,” Billie reclaims the power she lost in the previous song by using literal NDAs. “I can crave you, but you don’t need to know,” she sings. By the end of this pair of tracks, Billie has matured to the point where she can live and act on her feelings on her own terms without having to feel beholden to someone trying to silence her voice and steal her power. In this way, she becomes happier than ever.
Happier Than Ever is filled with pockets of genius that remind us of why the world was so enraptured with Billie in 2019. Unfortunately, those pockets of genius are marred by production that settles on the side of uninteresting more than it should. Even important moments like the spoken “Not My Responsibility” interlude are unfairly muddied because of how the production drags along in the background. At 16 tracks, Happier Than Ever does pack a lot of music onto one record; so, when so many of these songs lack the punch that carried her debut album, the nearly one-hour runtime begins to work to Billie’s disadvantage. The jazz and soft rock influences on this album are welcome additions to Billie’s sonic palette, but the overall product does open the door for an important conversation: it may be time for Billie to reach out to more producers beyond FINNEAS. Their sibling relationship has resulted in some all-time great songs, but Happier Than Ever would have benefited greatly from an additional mind or two behind the boards.
Key Tracks: “Oxytocin” | “Getting Older” | “Happier Than Ever” | “I Didn’t Change My Number” | “Your Power”