In the aftermath of Billie Eilish’ stunning night at the Grammy awards – where she swept all before her in a record-shattering haul – it seemed like this young figure, for so long the Biggest Cult Artist On The Planet, had finally crossed over. Her 2019 debut album ‘WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’ felt definitive, a resetting of pop’s electronic possibilities, one imbued with a punk-like sense of independence.
But it’s worth remember that this is an artist at the start of her career. Bond theme ‘No Time To Die’ – the film itself, in true pandemic style, isn’t even out yet – initially felt like an outlier, a playful experiment for Billie as well as producer, collaborator, and brother FINNEAS to try out. Yet in many ways it’s become a bridging point, between the pointed digital-driven success of her debut, and the more lush, open, and organic songwriting of its follow up.
A work of subtle evolution, ‘Happier Than Ever’ finds Billie Eilish more at ease with herself. If her debut’s immense creativity was reflective of an anxious mind, then ‘Happier Than Ever’ – with its fondness for torch songs, and its beautiful vocal epistles – reflects an artist who has grown more accepting of herself, while still exploring both her possibilities and her limitations.
Opening with ‘Getting Older’, the album finds Billie self-consciously moving past her teen-prodigy status. The voice of someone older, wiser, and more experienced, it’s worth reminding ourselves that she’s still only 19, not even old enough to get served alcohol in an American bar. ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’ is a whispered song of regret, but its vocal – so wracked with subtlety – is offset by a beat triggered by a love for trap, and modern hip-hop production.
Indeed, while ‘Happier Than Ever’ is a more lush, subtle experience than her debut, the digi pyrotechnics that lit up ‘Bad Guy’, say, are still present. Take ‘Therefore I Am’ – Billie’s ominous line “I’m not your friend…” is bounced against the kind of barbed electronic interplay which made her debut such a precocious alt-pop bulldozer.
Yet it’s the penchant for torch songs which truly marks this album out from her debut. Dialling down the day-glo sonic tapestries, there’s an increased reliance on Billie’s voice as an instrument. Dissolving classic tropes into a studio perfume, songs such as ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ – with its almost Impressionistic take on South American sounds – or the heavenly title track, with its Billie Holiday influence, resonate in a way we’ve not quite heard from Billie before.
Lyrically, she’s attempting to find a personal form of balance – between responsibilities and freedom, between mistakes and successes. Take the subtle introspection of the title song, or the statements underpinning ‘Therefore I Am’ – you can even look towards ‘Halley’s Comet’, with its promise of return and renewal.
A record of quite complexity, ‘Happier Than Ever’ closes with ‘Male Fantasy’. A subdued finale, it quietly picks apart a tale of heartbreak, inverting this tale of love lost to further explore her own role in a male dominated entertainment world, one where her image and body are objectified. It’s a bravura lyrical performance, with it solemn regret – “Nothing lasts / I know the deal…” – sharpened by the minimalist arrangement.
Ultimately ‘Happier Than Ever’ sits in a completely different realm from her debut. Pared back and finely contoured, it revels in subtlety, with a kind of crepuscular glow settling on her potent meditations. Whether it’s the glowing choral impact of ‘GOLDWING’ or the dense paranoia of ‘NDA’, it’s a record that revels in quiet contradiction. Patiently moving into a new era, ‘Happier Than Ever’ is shrouded in a transformative darkness.
Words: Robin Murray
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