Album Review: Billie Eilish - 'Happier Than Ever'
That Billie Eilish is 19-years-old is the single most famous thing about her – I would venture to guess that in the summer of 2019, as popular as the song “bad guy” was, more people heard that there was this high school kid with a number-one hit than heard the song itself. The first person born in the 21st century to top the Billboard Hot 100, Eilish’s age became an indispensable part of her public reputation, and she was immediately sold as the voice of her generation, a Kurt Cobain of zoomers.
And yet, perhaps because the 28 months which elapsed between the release of “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” and the release of Eilish’s sophomore album felt like 28 years, Eilish seems oddly retro. The sound of “Happier Than Ever” leans into the retro label – Eilish is still defiantly young, but her sound has grown increasingly eclectic from her striking but mostly linear debut.
Eilish is no longer a true outlier on the pop charts – Olivia Rodrigo is now, arguably, the most fawned-over pop artist born during the first George W. Bush term by the Gen-X and Millennial media crowd. But while Rodrigo produces music which is, for better or worse, conventional pop, Eilish’s songwriting is considerably more quirky and, in the end, more singular.
“Happier Than Ever” doesn’t have an earworm on the level of “bad guy” (despite trying very, almost uncomfortably, hard with “Therefore I Am”), but as a comprehensive work, it’s a more interesting album than “When We All Feel Asleep, Where Do We Go?”
Like Nirvana 30 years ago, Eilish’s secret key to success as a totemic generational artist is that she simultaneously sounds like the future and the past. Her music is not a reinvention of music, but rather a reinvigoration of the broader arc of the popular singer/songwriter form. And ultimately, Eilish’s lane is not the massive arena-pop of a Rodrigo (or an Ariana Grande or Cardi B, to dig back a generation prior), but rather a far more introspective, sonically claustrophobic one.
This is evidenced by Eilish once again recording an album at the home studio of her producer and brother, Finneas O’Connell. Some songs do sound bigger than the relatively DIY aesthetic of its production would suggest – the final two minutes of the “Happier Than Ever” title track is awash with layers of rock guitar and drums, while the techno beats of “Oxytocin” are pulled straight from the kind of nightclub Eilish is too young to enter. But the heart of “Happier Than Ever” is firmly rooted at home.
The album’s first single, “my future,” is considerably softer than her previous work, with distinct elements of jazz and even trip-hop, later steering all the way into the latter on “Lost Cause.” Her other softer moments come in the form of Taylor Swift-esque ballads such as “Halley’s Comet” and “Your Power.”
But while this might suggest an album that is all atmosphere and no energy, the aggressive club-vibe of the aforementioned “Oxytocin” or “GOLDWING” – or especially “OverHeated,” which sounds straight off of a Massive Attack album – will quickly dissuade listeners of that. In some ways, that the album bounces from acoustic folk to hip-hop influenced dance music makes for a less cohesive product, but it makes for a more entertaining one; something like the big beat on “NDA” is more striking when it’s surrounded by ballads.
Even a transparent throwback like “Billie Bossa Nova,” a song which sounds exactly like you think it does if you have even a passing familiarity with the music of Billie Eilish and bossa nova music, works because it fits well within an album where anything goes.
Not every song on the album works. “Not My Responsibility,” a spoken word track, has admirable aims, but is ultimately fairly paint-by-numbers poetry. Although, its inclusion does suggest that Eilish carefully considered this album as a cohesive and independent work rather than merely a collection of standalone songs, as the song would be nearly impossible to include on a playlist independent of the album as a whole. “Therefore I Am,” Eilish’s second most popular single to date, reached number two in the U.S. by utilizing the “bad guy” formula of Eilish’s whispery, pseudo-hip hop delivery and synth hooks, but sticks out in a distracting way as the 14th track on “Happier Than Ever.” She does, however, deserve some credit for the fact that even the imperfect elements of this album are never dull.
Ultimately, the legacy of “Happier Than Ever” is going to be how it is received by Billie Eilish’s peers and by those who will embrace her music in the coming years. But she also makes pound-for-pound interesting and entertaining music for all generations, and while Eilish’s talents as a vocalist are somewhat limited, there is no denying that her abilities as a songwriter and her acerbic form of charisma have made her, as a teenager, one of the most essential album artists of her era.