You can’t pin Billie Eilish down. The 19–year–old pop prodigy cemented herself as one of the most famous teenagers in the world with her 2019 debut album, the monumental WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? The LP was co–written and produced entirely by her brother Finneas O'Connell, who recorded it with Eilish mostly in her childhood bedroom of their parents’ home in L.A. The record was a collage of Eilish’s brain, effortlessly switching between genres: art–pop, avant–folk, R&B–esque ruminations on hell, something akin to Frank Sinatra, and a song that even sampled The Office. It was a can’t–miss spectacle from the rising wunderkind, humorous yet genuinely introspective, eclectic yet cohesive, eccentric but not uncomfortable. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? was a near–perfect thesis statement for everything Eilish stood for at the time. She was the soundtrack to your nightmares and your nights out. She was the bad guy, instantly recognizable in her oversized sweatshirts, black hair and green roots, and with her glazed ocean eyes aimed somewhere just beyond the camera.
All of these elements are stripped away in her highly anticipated sophomore album, Happier Than Ever. On the striking cover, Eilish, now sporting a blonde bombshell look, stares dead–eyed upward with a tear streaked across her cheek, with nothing but a simple white shawl around her shoulders. The art visualizes the moods of the record: somber, introspective, wise, glib, seductive, lonely, liberating, and euphoric all at once. Happier Than Ever lives up to its title. It’s a testament to Eilish as an artist and a person, the sound of a child star maturing.
On the opener “Getting Older,” we hear Eilish poignantly voice her inner narrative, musing on the toll of fame on her psyche and her growing responsibilities. We also get a rare moment of vulnerability from the teen, who once said “duh!” in mock disgust. Eilish discloses that she was abused, a theme that also crops up elsewhere on Happier Than Ever. While the recording process was significantly more enjoyable compared to the recording of Eilish’s debut, it wasn’t without tough moments. “I had to take a break in the middle of writing [“Getting Older”],” Eilish told Rolling Stone. “I wanted to cry, because it was so revealing. And it’s just the truth.”
But soft, authentic moments like this one are balanced out with a layer of harsh, self–protecting confidence. On the early stand–out track, “I Didn’t Change My Number,” a sample of Eilish’s dog Shark snarling jolts the listener out of the reflective spell of “Getting Older.” Part of Happier Than Ever’s pleasures comes from how well transitions are executed on the album. Similarly, the breathy and seductive “Oxytocin” provides an adrenaline rush that directly follows the calm introspection of “my future.” The one–two punch of spoken word interlude “Not My Responsibility” and its counterpart “OverHeated” come after the dreamy love song “Halley’s Comet.” The near–acoustic and vulnerable single “Your Power” precedes the scuzzy and opaque highlight “NDA.” Eilish knows she can give the public only so much of her private life and the tracklist reflects her understandable defensiveness. “I wish that I could tell the fans everything I think and feel and it wouldn’t live on the internet forever,” she told Rolling Stone.
“Your Power” is a thorny song for a number of reasons. It was a strange choice for a lead single since its closest antecedent in Eilish’s discography is the slow–burning guitar ballad and fan–favorite “i love you,” from her debut. The release of “Your Power” marked the official start of the Happier Than Ever era and Eilish’s “blonde” music, so to speak, yet it wasn’t the first single from the album (that was “my future.”) Note that in the video for “my future,” Eilish still has her signature green and black hair. In the former song’s music video, Eilish (now blonde) sings painfully about abuse (“How dare you / and how could you?”) while a snake wraps its way around her body. Not necessarily the image to get you hyped for an album, right? But what “Your Power” lacks in energetic pump, it makes up for in message: Abuse of any kind is never and will never be okay. The song refutes the image of Eilish as the immature teen who cannot comprehend adult issues at the cost of the excitement that constitutes her best singles.
“Lost Cause” is another odd choice for a single. Marrying the understated cool of “bad guy” with the stripped–down production of “Your Power,” the sum of “Lost Cause” feels like a retread of earlier single “Therefore I Am.” Putting aside how similar their respective videos are (they both share a common flippancy and feeling of mischief with lack of plot and setting), both “Lost Cause” and “Therefore I Am” essentially say the same thing—that Billie is better than you (be it an online troll or a nuisant ex.) Eilish is often at her best when she brings you inside the depths of her adolescent mind, as she did in songs like “ilomilo,” “bury a friend,” and “i love you,” or, from the latest record, “Getting Older,” “Not My Responsibility,” and the title track. “Lost Cause” and “Therefore I Am,” while they are both genuinely fun songs, lack the concept (and, in the case of the former, intrigue) to hold one’s imagination. They aren’t necessarily drawbacks for Happier Than Ever either. They’re just repetitive in sentiment and come across as filler at best. “Therefore I Am” isn’t out of place among songs like “bad guy,” “you should see me in a crown,” “Oxytocin,” and “I Didn’t Change My Number,” but “Lost Cause” could’ve been left on the drawing board. If only Eilish and O’Connell could make songs without feeling the need to finish and release them.
Fortunately, the other songs on the album have enough intrigue to save the record from its two relative duds. Happier Than Ever’s title track begins quietly until halfway through it bursts into an angry, crunchy guitar with Eilish screaming at the top of her lungs at her ex. It’s a truly jaw–dropping moment, especially given Eilish’s reputation for whisper–singing (which she has adamantly tried to shake off). On “Male Fantasy,” Eilish contemplates pornography’s cost on men’s perception of women while she watches it herself (“I can’t stand the dialogue / She would never be that satisfied”). Diving deeper into her mental state, she then muses how she grew apart from a childhood best friend. In the next breath she admits that, despite her instincts, she could never hate an ex–lover. For an artist who isn’t even legally allowed to drink in America, the song is shockingly mature. In righteous anger and in calm contemplation, she finds liberation—happier than ever.