Happier Than Ever: Billie Eilish
Genre: Pop/Alternative pop/Pop-rock
Best tracks: Therefore I Am, Your Power, Happier Than Ever
Weakest Tracks: Everybody Dies
‘Happier Than Ever’ is the California-based teen pop singer’s follow-up to 2019’s smash hit ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’. The latter had swept up almost all the major nominations at the 2020 Grammys and took home the Album of The Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Engineered Album (along with her brother producer Finneas).
The album opens with “Getting Older”, a stripped back song with Billie’s recognizably restrained singing accompanied by bare piano, and then hit by a chorus of strings and a synth beat. We do not expect a pop record to start off with a minimalist song, especially a Billie Eilish record. Her debut album began with a 13-second audio clip of the singer and her brother Finneas goofing about and roaring with laughter followed by a contagiously danceable pop tune called “bad guy”. ‘Happier Than Ever’, on the other hand, begins with this minimalist song instead. This is probably Billie telling the world that HTE is nothing like ‘When We All Fall Asleep’ (in short), nor should it be compared to her previous work.
There is a thematically more mature songwriting here as Eilish deals with her newfound fame after the smashing success of her first album, being stalked, growing up, taking more responsibility and so on. In “Getting Older”, she goes “there’s a lot I’m grateful for/But it’s different when a stranger’s always waitin’ at your door/Which is ironic ’cause the strangers seem to want me more/Than anyone before”. Another great lyrical snippet: “I realized I crave pity/When I retell a story, I make everything sound worse/Can’t shake the feeling that I’m just bad at healing/And maybe that’s the reason every sentence sounds rehearsed”…. It’s hard-hitting and one of the more relatable songs on the album.
“Halley’s Comet” is a cozy and warm song that gives off ‘Christmas’ vibes. “Not My Responsibility” is a spoken word piece where the 19-year old calls out the media and critics who body shame her and her fellow female celebrities. The artist speaks calmly of how society always finds flaws in the body of a woman, either wanting her to be taller, bigger, thinner or curvier. Her hushed voice is supported by an ambient score that renders her speech even more powerful and haunting.
The monologue is followed by “Your Power”, one of the quietest but hard-hittingly emotional tracks on the album. It’s a painful indictment of the sadly all too relevant phenomenon of older men getting involved with younger women, and taking advantage of the unequal dynamic in the relationship. Billie herself was romantically involved with a man much older than her when she was only seventeen. This relationship found her being gaslit and mentally abused by the partner, and it ended with the singer grappling with self-esteem issues that she now sings about in this song.
Billie continues to sing about this toxic relationship in “NDA” with an angst and exasperation that takes you back to ‘When We All Fall Sleep’ (in short). The minimalist beat here is occasionally interrupted by heavy synths that sound like angry motor engines and rolling thunder. It ends with a chilling siren that will raise the skin on your hair. But this sound only occurs once before the song quickly wraps up, leaving you wanting more.
Comparing the album to her preceding work
Since her previous album ‘When We All Fall Asleep’ was such a massive hit, it’s only inevitable that fans and critics alike would compare it to her new album. The previous album (also produced by Finneas) fell into the genre of dark or alternative pop, with heavy bass, and a mixture of influences like emo and jazz. Billie was then 17 years old, and explored issues that Gen Zers faced: depression and anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, teen suicide, unreciprocated love, and climate change. It was a painfully frank and disturbing album for pop that year, and made millions of (mostly teen) fans ball their eyes out. ‘Happier Than Ever’, on the other hand, is a thematically more mature work, exploring heartbreak and post-relationship trauma like many grown up artists do (Dua Lipa, Adele and Selena Gomez come to mind). Most teenagers, who have yet to have such experiences, might be a little alienated by some of the more ‘relationship-heavy’ songs here.
Unlike many breakup albums which tend to feel like a musical version of the 12 Stages of Grief, beginning with the artist going from pain to denial, anger to resignation and then finally acceptance, like Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ did, Eilish’s record is more emotionally abstract like FKA Twigs’ ‘Magdalene’. HTE is a roller coaster of emotions where you don’t know what the next song is going to feel like. The devastating “NDA” is directly succeeded by the confidently upbeat “Therefore I Am” (the transition is so smooth!). All the transitions work here. But honestly the wide range of topics explored in her debut is very much missed in her new, thematically more conventional work.
It also lacks the edge and musical innovation of her debut. When her debut came out, the interesting sound choices and horror imagery in the lyrics and visuals brought a
fresh and intriguing gust of wind in pop music. Sound effects of staplers and glass breaking in “bury a friend”, Billie singing on helium in “8”, the distorted voice and “bone-rattling” bass in “xanny”, a body hitting the concrete, distant sirens and heart monitors in “listen before i go” all made even the most critical reviewer sit up and take notice of the newcomer and her (widely dubbed) ‘genius’ brother-producer. This freshness and ambition is largely absent in HTE and won’t be converting any Billie-skeptics. This is not to say that HTE does not have its merits. As mentioned before, it is a very different album from her debut, and comparing the two should be largely avoided. The new record, despite its shortcomings, is still a strong break-up album with interesting tracks that you will be returning to, again and again. While more understated and less ambitious than its predecessor, it is still a commendable album with some infectious tracks like “Therefore I Am”, “Oxytocin”, “Lost Cause” and the titular “Happier Than Ever” where Billie does some impressive Avril Lavigne-like punk screaming. We haven’t heard her sing so passionately since the 2017 extended play ‘Don’t Smile At Me’. We hope she explores strong vocals in her next record instead of the tired whisper-like singing that has become expected of her.
‘Happier Than Ever’ is now on Spotify: Click here to listen
Listen to the album on YouTube:
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