Happier Than Ever: Billie Eilish Embarrasses Her Detractors

Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever Album Cover

Fame and success have always been double edged swords for anyone who has ever achieved either, especially artists. Once their canny observations about their reality rocket them to stardom, they suddenly find their lives transformed into a glamorous monotony that’s rarely conducive to inspiration. They have all the resources in the world to create something with, yet they’ve been uprooted from the life and experiences that inspired them in the first place. The list is almost endless of artists who, once they were presented with a global audience, ended up just spinning their wheels until the public lost interest, sometimes regaining their mojo once the spotlight was out of their eyes. Such seemed very much like it would be the fate of Billie Eilish, the teenager rocketed to superstardom by the success of singles like “Bad Guy”, “Bury a Friend” and “When the Party’s Over”.

Her debut album When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? was simultaneously one of the most acclaimed and commercially successful records of 2019, sending her and her producer brother Finneas into the pop stratosphere in a matter of months. Having sold herself on her alternative and antisocial persona and still at a tender age, Eilish seemed increasingly uncomfortable with the spotlight, seen mouthing “please not me” moments before yet another Grammy was shied her way. The discourse surrounding her provocative persona certainly didn’t help matters, with the usual intrusive and tasteless speculation around her private life, body and sexuality that accompanies any young woman of any degree of celebrity.

At times it seemed like everyone was waiting on Eilish’s downfall. Her girls’ slumber party themed music video was attacked for Queerbaiting, and just recently she was forced to apologize for having appeared to have mouthed a racial slur in a video unearthed from when she was just fourteen. Let’s call this discourse what it is—it has nothing to do with holding a celebrity accountable and everything to do with opportunistic outlets trying to score clicks by attacking the reputation of an easy and well known target.

Throughout all of this, Eilish conducted herself with a sagacity and maturity that any celebrity would do well to emulate, but when subjected to such exhausting scrutiny, it’s hardly surprising that like many a sophomore record, Happier Than Ever would be largely devoted to exploring her public and private images, her feelings on her fame and on those attempting to cynically mine it for a taste of celebrity themselves. Happily, Eilish’s take on the subject of her own fame is biting and perspicacious, and delivered with equal measures of relatable vulnerability and unshakable confidence. The spoken word track “Not My Responsibility” delivers a response to the absurd discourse around her wardrobe and it’s one of the most complete and incisive artistic statements made on the subject of being a woman in the public eye.

I’d have to admit to having been somewhat in two minds about Eilish’s debut. Its biggest singles were dangerous and vivacious displays of bravura confidence and Gen-Z venom, but its slower balladry lacked the sense of innovation, savagery and excitement that was Eilish’s strongest asset. I’ve no such reservations about Happier Than Ever though.

Not that it’s full of sinister bedroom pop bangers, though, far from it. “Therefore I Am” is the closest we get to the kind of ominous adolescent, feminine power trip anthem that put Eilish on the map, and it’s arguably the best song she’s ever made in this vein, with music industry phonies making the perfect antagonists to her amused contempt. Instead, what we get is an eclectic and diverse yet cohesive and rewarding assortment of musical touchstones, with slow jams, ballads and trippy grooves pulled together harmoniously by the pristine production, razor sharp songwriting and Eilish’s distinctive harmonised vocals, putting not a note out of place for its entire 56 minute duration.

As she observes on the opening track, “Getting Older”, Eilish’s perspective is no longer that of the rebellious, disaffected adolescent she embodied so perfectly on When We All Fall Asleep. The voluptuous, sensual woman she debuted with her Vogue cover is now in full bloom, showcased on glamorous, seductive vibes drawing defiantly on her sexual currency. Happier Than Ever explores the autonomy of a grown woman in her prime, exuding confidence with grace, candor and authority. When Eilish sung about seducing your dad on “Bad Guy” it was a deliberate provocation, a teenager acting out with a daring inner smirk. The sexual power she displays on Happier Than Ever, though, is that of a woman in complete control of her mind and body. Out with the oversized punchy industrial synth and tear-stained soul bearing, in with tasteful, nude guitars and watery earth toned textures, gently caressing your ears with her hushed, intimate melodies.

Like its precursor, Happier Than Ever is a virtual one-woman show, with Eilish continuing to abjure modern feature culture and keep it in house with no house guests and production entirely by Finneas. Rather than keeping her penned into her established sounds, this allows Billie and Finneas to remain isolated from the trendier sounds of the zeitgeist and explore their own ideas and follow their own instincts, taking inspiration from beyond what everyone else is doing in the top 40. However, for as refreshing and diverse as the tracklist is, with everything from bossa nova and trip-house to guitar rock and straight-up country making an appearance, the refraction though the personal lenses of Billie and her producer keeps an impressive sense of cohesion between tracks. “NDA” and “Therefore I Am” were both released as singles, but hearing them placed next to one another, transitioning this seamlessly is a eureka moment I hadn’t twigged before.

They’re not the only singles that, despite being impressive in their own right, shine brightest in this fresh context. “My Future”, a pretty old song by this point, still takes its time to get going, but is more rewarding here, liberated from the shorter attention span of a singles audience, and expresses a beautiful sentiment of looking forward to what’s ahead, champing at the bit to see what’s over the next horizon for you. The very orthodox instrumental of “Your Power” also feels more at home here, shoulder to shoulder with similarly subtle, but more experimental tracks.

The more up-tempo moments, though arriving with less bombast than the When We All Fall Asleep singles, are as exciting and precisely arranged as any from her debut: danceable, slick and often skin-pricklingly sexy. “Oxytocin” is a trippy and steamy ’90s house banger you can positively see the flickering retro strobes playing across pulsing, sweaty bodies, and the sheer, striptease bass line and playful, breathy harmonies of “Lost Cause” make for the most intensely erotic listening experience of 2021. The teasing “Billie Bossa Nova” takes a more coquettish tack, inviting her lover to put down their phone and pay attention to her, with a lush, soothing samba guitar beat.

Many songs explore the idea of Eilish’s contempt for those who’ve wasted her patience or sought her indulgence once too often. These songs often frame themselves as breakup brush-offs—like the slinky, “I Didn’t Change My Number”, where the fuzzing synths create a moody, brittle groove—but could as easily be read as meditations on her fame and the climate of the music industry and internet culture, such as they overlap. “Your Power” delivers a word-perfect character assassination to those men who use their industrial sway to exploit others sexually, and I’ve listened to a lot of the grimiest of hip hop, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone deliver a burn as savage as Eilish telling her ex that “[he] got no job”.

On the more personal and reflective end, there’s songs like “Growing Older”, where there’s a biting sense of tragedy to her increasingly jaded outlook, even towards her own music, observing: “things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed now”. This opener acts as a manifesto for the album, declaiming modestly her intentions “to keep myself together and prioritise my pleasure”. “Halley’s Comet” is a more traditional love song that has a similar sense of vulnerability and sincere emotional need, a vibrant moment illustrative of how the record balances its spikiness with  revealing moments of tenderness. These two sides to the record come together most acutely in the lower-fi title track: a gentle acoustic bedroom pop ballad that transitions into a bitter stadium-sized rock anthem at the halfway point, kicking up the tempo and introducing more layers of harmonies, drums and increasingly distorted and glitchy electric guitars.

Happier Than Ever is a lower impact record than When We All Fall Asleep, without the big attention grabbing singles. In such a climate, it’s inevitable some will discard it as the disappointment many seemed to be willing, but make no mistake, Happier Than Ever is better than its predecessor, exploring its themes with a maturity and grace far beyond the years of its creators. Billie has been forced to grow up fast in the years since her last album and Happier Than Ever shows it. Refusing to throw a single bone to her detractors, she’s created a second personal, intimate and era defining pop masterpiece, and what’s bravest of all, it sounds nothing like her last one.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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