Album Review: Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever

[Darkroom/Interscope; 2021]

If there’s a true takeaway to be extracted from the pop star archetype, it’s that things are very lonely at the top. Billie Eilish isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, megastar to expose the frigid peaks of the Billboard charts. It puts a target on your back, and soon everyone has a criticism for you – and while we like to pretend gender has nothing to do with it, it most certainly does. Men are rewarded for being sincere and masculine, but women are often chastised for being sexualized despite that being one of the only sure ways to get noticed – and can be something that is projected on them without their intention.

When her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? dropped in 2019, Eilish had already built enough momentum to ensure that the album would catapult her to the top, bringing with it greater scrutiny. Her image and body became talking points because she didn’t dress like the female pop stars that preceded her – she wore baggy clothes to hide her body, so all the phallic suits obviously pondered ‘how can we sexualize that?’ Since they couldn’t, they instead harassed her. Her fanbase never wavered, but the demand for her to fit a norm was commanding, and even as she swept the Grammys her naysayers predicted a drastic fall from grace. This pressure undoubtedly has increased since, and has influenced the next step in her evolution.

Eilish’s sophomore album Happier Than Ever may appear to cave to those demands for sexualization. Eilish is blonde now, she’s showing more of her body in publications, and her fashion sense has drifted to a more glamorous realm. She’s still not smiling though, and Happier Than Ever explains why. Working again with her brother Finneas, Eilish’s second album is more personable than her last, valuing substance over accessibility. This doesn’t mean that Happier Than Ever is devoid of charisma or pop elements, there’s plenty of those, it simply follows a quieter approach.

“I wish someone had told me I’d be doin’ this by myself,” Eilish somberly states on the bare opener “Getting Older”, a nod to the solitude that comes with stardom. At only 19 years old, Eilish already sounds like she’s weathered some of the worst criticisms of her career, but unfortunately, she probably has much more to look forward to. As with most careers, years of experience play heavily into how seriously you’re taken, but some may forget that Eilish has been on this journey since she was 13. So, for her to admit that she’s doing most of this out of a need to stay relevant, even if the joy is already lost, is not only depressing but all too honest for those who prefer their stars to maintain a glossy sheen.

Never forget, Eilish is still a kid. She can’t even legally drink alcohol, but she can be labeled a whore on social media, a notion that makes the hidden romance-laden “NDA” seem more apropos; “I bought a secret house when I was seventeen / haven’t had a party since I got the keys / Had a pretty boy over, but he couldn’t stay / On his way out, made him sign an NDA.” Her private life is always on display now, no one waited until she was of legal age to exploit it – they never do, just ask the Olsen twins. Happier Than Ever attempts to counter-exploit this, but it will likely change nothing moving forward for Eilish. As honest as Happier Than Ever is, it’s just the next volley in a war that won’t be ending soon.

The downtempo feel of Happier Than Ever is a façade that remains throughout, and the twosome’s ability to build anticipation for a live rendition remains unrivalled. It may be subdued in the studio, but the industrialized synths, hypnotic rhythm and subtle vocal delivery on “Oxytocin” will no doubt soundtrack raves across the world – not to mention cause mass hysteria at Eilish’s own shows. It builds nicely to the echoing chorus that will reflect off walls amidst strobes, smoke, and glitter. Despite this, it doesn’t ease up on the message of pressure – that gets snuck in too, but with less emphasis so as not to detract from the energy. It’s a wonder it wasn’t chosen as a single, since it contains all of Eilish’s trademarks, with a breathless vibe to boot.

Her message does however get lost from time to time. Eilish craves pity in relationships on the infectious yet much derided “Lost Cause” and the thumping “I Didn’t Change My Number”, which are perfectly serviceable songs, but fairly empty thematically when compared to stronger examples like “GOLDWING”. On the other hand, the spoken word “Not My Responsibility” hammers home the message about reclaiming her image (“Some people hate what I wear / Some people praise it / Some people use it to shame others”), but, at almost four minutes, it’s a tad grating after a while.

The length of Happier Than Ever means that unevenness is inevitable. At almost an hour, the album sometimes feels stretched too far and thus misses its mark by a mile. Detours like “my future” are passable but forgettable, and somewhat perplexing since it was originally released a year ago. It possesses a likeness to the theme but falls by the wayside compared to strong and more in-your-face cuts like “Therefore I Am” – a latter half highlight that finds Eilish more concisely in her groove. “Therefore I Am” ultimately feels like an extension of her debut album, with precision beats and vocals that spit and sway in uniform. Even the story of abuse in the acoustic track “Your Power” feels more purposeful and thematically relevant than “my future”. Edits like these may have been suggested with more heads involved, but assembling this album at home with her brother allowed Eilish full control, for better or worse.

Another issue with the length is that Happier Than Ever is back-loaded, with the powerhouse title track arriving particularly late. An ‘S-tier’ level Eilish track, “Happier Than Ever” starts innocently enough, with ukulele accompanying the morose singer as she convinces herself that she is in fact “Happier than ever.” But it’s a false flag, “Happier Than Ever” transitions to an arena-rock thriller, underscored by crunched guitars and featuring Eilish in such top form personality-wise, so electrifying that she sounds in need of an exorcism. This finale is the perfect encapsulation of why she’s so popular – this is simply an angsty and frustrated young woman lashing out. The cheesy mentions of the internet, and rhyming “shitty” and “city” just add charm to her innocence and naïveté.

As unnecessary a postscript as it is, “Male Fantasy” brings the album full circle. The contemplations of a 19-year-old seem to be everywhere, but that isolation that Eilish feels will only grow if “Male Fantasy” is to be believed, “I worry this is how I’m always gonna feel / But nothing lasts, I know the deal.” It’s a perfect example of how Eilish can be both naïve and wise beyond her years at once; something that is displayed repeatedly over the course of the album. Aesthetically, it may be polarizing compared to the hit factory that was her debut, but Happier Than Ever stands on its own as a powerfully flawed, overstuffed, but meaningful exploration of what it’s like to live as both a teenager and a superstar in ways that none before her felt comfortable saying.