Billie Eilish and Finneas capitalize on Eilish’s vertiginous rise to fame by broadening their palette on Happier Than Ever without ever trying to recreate the hits that got them in this position.
“Is my value based only on your perception?” asks a disenchanted Billie Eilish on the only interlude of Happier Than Ever. “Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?”, she adds with biting lucidity. The track debuted on her Where Do We Go? world tour more than a year ago and still feels particularly relevant in the days of Twitter Stan Wars. Despite the world watching her every move, Billie Eilish delivers her second album with a promotional nonchalance that suggests the lessons learned along the way aren’t just for show.
Eilish and Finneas (brother, co-writer and producer) are still on the prowl for gnarly production tricks. Their willingness to broaden their scope comes through on tracks like ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’ and ‘OverHeated’, both heavily indebted to Timbaland’s grasp on naughties R&B and pop but also on the more singular ‘NDA’ that takes When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? swagger and turns it up several notches.
Meanwhile, Eilish constantly switches up between demeanours, cold and hardened by fame at times, soft and devastatingly candid about abuse at others. Betrayal reads like water off a duck’s back when she sings “I didn’t change my number / I only changed who I reply to” and fame grifters get a run for their money as she distances herself from those who attempt the bumpy ride on her coattails. “I’m sorry / I don’t think I caught your name”, she claims, clearly only asking for it to make a point. Her disposition radically changes in tracks like ‘Getting Older’ or ‘Your Power’ where Eilish recounts being taken advantage of. The first opens the album with a trove of revelations, from the admission that “Last week, I realized I crave pity / When I re-tell a story, I make everything sound worse” to the crushing “Wasn’t my decision to be abused”.
Through all the trauma Eilish found a way to present an album with an undeniably more optimistic outlook on life than her first LP. Even the peak Eilish morbid obsession with death on ‘Everybody Dies’ ultimately delivers a comforting message (“You are not alone”). And when Eilish looks back at a relationship that caused her so much pain, she frames it under the terms of a newfound serenity on the title track (“When I’m away from you / I’m happier than ever”).
While Eilish soars significantly more on Happier Than Ever than she did on When we fall asleep–see the unbridled ‘Oxytocin’ or the trendy pop-punk second act of the title track cc. Olivia Rodrigo–the intimacy of the mixes that introduced her to the world remains intact. Her vocals hug the listener close on ‘Getting Older’ and ‘Lost Cause’ in a now-familiar fashion, mirroring captivating deep cuts off her debut like ‘i love you’ and ‘ilomilo’.
Less familiar are some of the new compositional choices, like the introduction of a synthesized bossa nova piece that loses the original breeze of the genre, the nondescript pop soul à la Sam Smith of ‘Hally’s Comet’, the textbook folksy conclusion of the album or the grating EDM inflexions of ‘Oxytocin’. The latter especially feels like a free throw into the unknown, a role-playing exercise of sorts, full of not-so-subtle panting sounds and lyrics that wouldn’t sound out of place on an older Usher record (“‘Cause I like to do things God doesn’t approve of if She saw”, “I wanna do bad things to you”).
You can’t really fault Eilish and Finneas for trying out new sounds and reaching out of their habitual toolkit on a nearly hour-long LP, especially when the hits outweigh the misses. Still, it’s often when the duo doesn’t sound like they’re trying all that hard that they get it right. In addition to having some of the prettiest vocals Eilish has cut to date, “my future” provides a glimpse at a more low-key version of Eilish that we certainly wouldn’t mind hearing a whole project from.
Happier Than Ever is out now via Polydor Records, and is available to purchase and stream. Billie Eilish will embark on a UK tour in June 2022, which will see her play five nights at London’s O2, for tickets head over here.