Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever
There was a time, in 2018, and well into 2019, before her seemingly overnight commercial success, that I did not really know who Billie Eilish was—then, eventually, I began seeing the name in headlines on music news sites, but at the time had not fully grasped just how popular she had become, what kind of music she was making, or who her intended audience was.
Eilish—her full name, Billie Eilish Baird O’Connell1, was just an artist operating in the larger scope of contemporary popular music; Eilish—the name responsible When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, an album with a cover that, when I would see it online or glance at it in person, I found slightly unnerving.
Near the beginning of 2020, in a time that seems much, much longer ago than it really is, Eilish cleaned up at the Grammy Awards—snagging the Best New Artist award, alongside both Best Pop Vocal Album and Album of The Year for When We Fall Asleep, as well as Record of The Year and Song of The Year for the album’s single, “Bad Guy.”
It was around this time I began listening to Eilish—more than likely due in part to a conversation had with my best friend about the non-album single, “Everything I Wanted,” issued in late 2019, and accompanied by a music video at the beginning of 2020. I hesitate to say that I found some of Eilish’s music “obnoxious,” but maybe I felt like I was not in the right age demographic to be listening—or, at least, to be listening and to take anything away from it. I had that thought while I was trying on clothing in an Urban Outfitters, mere weeks before the onset of the pandemic, when “Bad Guy” began playing loudly overhead.
Maybe I felt like I was not in the right age demographic to be listening—but I am self-aware enough to realize I am also, more than likely, not in the right age demographic to be buying clothing2 at Urban Outfitters3.
“Everything I Wanted,” though, appeared like an easy point of access—lyrically pensive, it is seemingly much less chaotic or challenging than the material from When We Fall Asleep. Based around a low, somber, pulsating rhythm that feels like it always on the cusp of lifting off, but never does. And musically, it is an early example of how, as a producer and songwriter, alongside her older brother Finneas O’Connell, Eilish is an expert at playing with a sense of tension, and rarely giving into the urge for release.
And it was around this time, when Eilish was nominated for a handful of Grammy Awards, and was becoming a marquee name in contemporary popular music, that an insufferable co-worker of mine began referring to her as “Edgy Lorde.”
This insufferable co-worker of mine thought they were incredibly clever when they quipped it—and continued to say it, or find ways to bring it up in conversations I did not have the energy, or interest, in having. And in the days leading up to the release of Eilish’s second full-length album, the restless, contemplative Happier Than Ever, I thought about that description once again, realizing now how off-base, and if not off-base, how unwarranted it was.
During my third, or fourth time through Happier Than Ever—mostly listening with analytical intent, what I realized is this: it isn’t a feel good album, but it also isn’t an album that, inherently, makes you feel bad. It is, for the hour or so that Eilish has your attention, an album that feels—Eilish, herself, has myriad feelings and they are all written into the album’s material; and you, as the listener, along for the ride, will have myriad feelings too, I’m sure.
Happier Than Ever, though, leaves those feelings on the table, or is fine with them just being “out there” and not providing any real resolve for them. It’s like there is no right or wrong answer by the time the album’s done—there are just feelings, neither good, nor bad. Do with them as you please.
Sprawled across 16 songs, Happier Than Ever includes Eilish’s 2020 one-off singles, “My Future” and “Therefore I Am,” sequenced in alongside the three advance tracks released prior to the arrival of the record as a whole—“Lost Cause,” “Your Power,” and “N.D.A.” And I think what is most surprising about Happier Than Ever is that while Eilish is an artist working within what I call “contemporary popular music,” this is not a “pop record,” or, at least what you might think of when you hear the description “pop record.” It isn’t a concept album, but it is a cycle of songs, or a collection, tightly woven together through similar sonic elements and recurring lyrical ideas; and structurally, it is flawless in how it is executed from start to finish, seemingly organized in specific segments or parts with very noticeable beginnings and endings.
And as the hour of the album’s run time draws to a close with the gentle acoustic swooning of the final track, “Male Fantasy,” it’s apparent that yes, there were five advance singles issued prior to the release of the album, but the further you get into the record, and the longer you sit with it, it seems that Happier Than Ever is the kind of collection that is intended to be taken as a whole, with little if any interruption at all, and that the album’s singles, like “Therefore I Am,” “N.D.A.,” and “Last Cause,” all of which I was nonplussed by originally, work much much better (or in the case of “Therefore I Am,” it’s slightly more palatable4) within the overall context of the record.
“She grew up.”
I had this goofy friend in college, and I was never really sure if he was serious or not when he said this, or, I guess the real concern would have been the implications of the way he phrased it, but sometime in 2003 or 2004, when Lindsay Lohan appeared in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls—this goofy friend happened across a photo of Lohan in some kind of problematic list of attractive women in some kind of problematic men’s5 magazine, and knowing her, primarily, as the girl from the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, commented, “She grew up.”
There’s a good chance she was barely 18 at the time.
Eilish will be 20 years old at the end of 2021, and prior to the slow roll out and promotion behind Happier Than Ever, her aesthetic was unmistakable. Often photographed within the last two years with hair dyed a combination of green and black, her clothing was an amalgamation leaning heavily into gothic territory—but make it high fashion, and make it all big or oversized, and cozy.
The Eilish that graces the cover of Happier Than Every, and the Eilish that appeared on the cover of Vogue in May, seems like a totally different woman.
And it arrives roughly at the halfway point on Happier Than Ever, so I am remiss to refer to it as a late stated conceit, or mission statement, or even the album’s thesis, but sequenced between the very clear conclusion to the album’s second “part,” but before its third, is “Not My Responsibility.”
The predatory male gaze will say that Eilish “grew up,” and that very notion—the notion of embracing sensuality, is what she addresses on “Not My Responsibility,” a spoken word track that serves as interlude on the album. Set over the tension of a synthesizer tone, and glitchy percussion interwoven in, Eilish slowly, and quietly, addresses the male gaze, as well as those critical of her. It isn’t difficult per se to hear, but it also isn’t one of the easier tracks on the album, but that’s the point—to challenge, and to make the listener think, even if it is discomforting.
“You have opinions about my opinions,” Eilish whispers. “I feel your stares, your disapproval, or your sigh of relief—if I lived by them, I’d never be able to move,” she continues. “Do my shoulders provoke you? Does my chest? Am I my stomach? My hips? The body I was born with—is it not what you wanted? If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman; if I shed the layers, I’m a slut.”
If there is a conceit, or a thesis, found within “Not My Responsibility”—or some element that can be connected to the larger themes from the album and Eilish, as an artist, as well, it would be what she utters within the final moments of the track:”Who decides what that makes me? What that means? Is my value based on your perception? Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?”
Between the photographs from her Vogue profile in the spring, as well as surprising inclusion of somewhat lusty and sensual lyrics in a handful of the songs on Happier Than Ever, the album, at its core, is a statement or at least a reflection on Eilish growing into her identity and further into womanhood.
The dizzying, throbbing “Oxytocin” is one of songs where Eilish’s embracing of the sensual is most apparent—musically, with the skittering keyboards and percussion, and trembling bass, it slithers and writhes, but it’s also among the album’s most lyrically surprising. “If you only pray on Sunday, could you come my way on Monday?,” she coos in the song’s first verse. “‘Cause I like to do things God doesn’t approve of if She saw us.”
Most surprising, then, outside of the frenetic nature of the song, and the way both Eilish and her brother Finneas play with creating a dramatic sense of tension, is the sexually charged nature of the song’s refrain: “She couldn’t look away—she’d want to get involved,” Eilish sings. “And what would people say if they listened through the wall?”
“Oxytocin,” lyrically, is also surprisingly volatile—running parallel to the chaos of the music. “I wanna do bad things to you,” Eilish confesses. “I wanna make you yell…don’t want to treat you well.”
“N.D.A.,” the album’s final advance single, is similar, though not as direct, in its lyrics—rather than leaning into the more sensual, or lustily charged imagery, Eilish juxtaposes the notions of fame and need for privacy against a one-off tryst. “Had a pretty boy over, but he couldn’t stay,” she muses in the song’s first verse. “On his way out, made him sign an N.D.A.”
Happier Than Ever is not a breakup album, though the dissolution of a relationship is a theme, lyrically, that Eilish returns to throughout, and in the album’s closing moments, the somber, tenderly plucked “Male Fantasy,” while lamenting heartbreak, she doesn’t so much confront the idea of the “male gaze,” or objectification head on, but she does ruminate, surprisingly, on the female perspective, albeit briefly, on pornography.
There’s a short story in Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado where the protagonist, a young woman, goes through a traumatic experience (it is never named, though strongly implied) and in the wake of it—and I am summarizing and paraphrasing here, but she finds she is able to hear the thoughts of people while watching them have sex—specifically while watching porn. And I only mention this, and it only came to mind, because of a lyric in “Male Fantasy.”
“Home alone, trying not to eat—distract myself with pornography,” Eilish sings, with a breathy voice full of sadness in the song’s opening line. “I hate the way she looks at me.”
“I can’t stand the dialogue,” she continues. “She would never be that satisfied—it’s a male fantasy. I’m going back to therapy.”
There’s humor, yes, in those observations, however stark they might be, but there’s also something very human, very honest, and very sorrowful about the way it all unfolds.
There is both a kaleidoscopic and a multitudinous nature to Happier Than Ever, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it is a musically restless album. And I think that in the hands of a less confident artist, that restlessness would make for a difficult listen—but here, the shifts in tone and style spotlight the dynamics of Eilish’s and O’Connell’s collaborative vision. Throughout, there are a handful of songs that that share similar sonic elements, or are structured in comparable ways, but elsewhere, things are steered other tracks into different territories—the acoustic guitar driven single, “Your Power” and the final song, “Male Fantasy,” are the two that come to mind almost immediately.
There are a number of tracks, or at least portions of tracks, that are based heavily around throbbing bass, woozy, swaying percussion, or buzzing synthesizers, and many of those work well, but there are also places where Happier Than Ever is surprisingly breezy—“Billie Bossa Nova” is titled aptly, and the warm, jazzy shuffling of “My Future” continues that lighter sonic aesthetic.
It might be, though, those moments based around a woozy, swaying feeling, powered by throbbing bass and buzzy synths, that are the most memorable, or the most covertly infectious. A song like “Goldwing,” which is split into to very distinct parts—opening with an elaborate choral arrangement before skittering off into a quick, rumbling rhythm—is not a single, nor is it written around the idea of a huge refrain; but there’s something about the unrelenting nature with which the song oscillates once it takes off that I continue to think about often. The same could be said for the ridiculously thick bass lick from “Last Cause,” paired with the crisp, sharp drum kit keeping time alongside it, or the jittery, frenetically buzzing synthesizers that border on sounding disorienting from “I Didn’t Change My Number.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that it is an element featured within a pop album of this magnitude, but Eilish, as a songwriter and a performer—and, perhaps, a persona, can be quite self-aware throughout Happier Than Ever—though the degree to which this, as a songwriting device, is successful, varies.
It’s something that she often uses or mentions quickly, in passing lines like, “Bought a secret house when I was 17—haven’t had a party since I got the keys,” which is quickly tucked into the first verse of “N.D.A,” but she is the most self-aware from the moment the album opens, on “Getting Older,” which is one of Happier Than Ever’s strongest, most impactful pieces—simply because of the unabashedly honest lyrical rumination.
Set against a bouncing keyboard progression that, even within all the restraint used, I would go so far as to say it sounds jaunty, I had to laugh during my initial listen of “Getting Older,” simply because of the song’s opening line, within the context of Eilish as an individual.
“I’m getting older,” she reflects. “I think I’m aging well.”6
There is a small barrier created, in the world outside of the song, when you are aware of Eilish’s age at the time of the album’s release, and the earnestness she sings a line like that with—but the song, as a whole, much like the recurring idea from Happier Than Ever, as a whole, is of maturation, and growth.
Eilish, self-aware, yes, becomes self-effacing as the song continues. “When I retell a story, I make everything sound worse,” she confesses. “Can’t shake the feeling that I’m just bad at healing, and maybe that’s the reason every sentence sounds rehearsed.”
The starkest observation in “Getting Older,” though, and the one that was most personally affecting for me—surprisingly not causing me to feel seen, or attacked, but rather just understood, comes in the refrain. “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now,” Eilish sings. “Things I’m longing for, someday I’ll be bored of. It’s so weird that we care so much until we don’t.”
The near whimsical arrangement that the song is set to doesn’t take away, per se, from the gravity of that kind of statement, but it did make me do a double take. It’s surprising to hear an artist like Eilish, only a few years into her career, already more successful than she possibly could have imagined, saying, “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now,” but maybe, if you’re like me, we all reach that point, where something is fun, or enjoyable, until it becomes work, and any kind of joy, or enthusiasm you had for it slowly disappears.
“It’s so weird that we care so much until we don’t,” she sings in the last line of the refrain. It is weird, and sometimes surprising, but maybe, if you’re like me, we all reach that point where something changes, and when you have lost almost all interest, and are literally going through the motions, the idea of simply walking away sounds so, so comforting.
Something that I noticed during my initial run through Happier Than Ever, and continued to take note of during subsequent listens, was that there are a handful of songs that are constructed to appear as if they are in two parts—the choral intro to “Goldwing,” giving way to the swaying, dizzying rhythm that follows is a great example, or at least the one that comes to mind first.
The album’s penultimate, and titular track, is another one of those songs—and it’s also the one moment across the album where Eilish finally lets go of the simmering sense of tension that she’s managed to sustain from the moment Happier Than Ever begins. There’s no song that could be described as being “bombastic” or even “explosive,” but “Happier Than Ever” is that place.
There is no resolve by the time the album ends, with “Male Fantasy,” but, if anything, the titular track, in the way it does viscerally detonate, is Happier’s moment of real catharsis.
The song, at first, doesn’t play its hand—instead, creating a near sense of whimsy within the swoony, gently strummed acoustic guitars that make up the song, well into its first minute. As it picks up, lyrically, Eilish doesn’t exactly become more manic, or frenetic, but there are minor hints that something is going to happen as she begins to build up the vitriol that grows to a cacophonic peak as things progress. “Don’t say it isn’t fair,” she sings as the first “part” of the song is delicately guided toward its conclusion. “You clearly weren’t aware that you made me miserable.”
The listener, or person who enjoys music in general, wants to refrain from calling Happier Than Ever a “headphone record,” simply because it is an album entering the contemporary popular music zeitgeist from an enormous name, and it is the kind of thing that could, and should, be enjoyed in myriad other ways, like a car stereo, or the CD player in your living room, or streamed on your phone or laptop via the platform of your choice—but the analytical listener, or music writer in me, that is hard pressed to listen for only leisure, encourages people to listen closely to this album, at least once, for all of the slick, impressive production elements—and the movement from one part, to the other, in “Happier Than Ever,” is perhaps one of the most graceful and impressive.
Going from an acoustic guitar strum, an electric guitar playing the same chords slides in right alongside it, and then—just like that, we are in the second part of the song, and Eilish, as her onslaught of heartbreak continues, is not here to fuck around.
“I don’t relate to you,” she sneers. “‘Cause I’d never treat me this shitty. You made me hate this city.”
And this is when, like snipping the wrong wire when attempting to diffuse a bomb, “Happier Than Ever” explodes in your face in a release of the angst and tension built up over the album until that point. Lyrically, the song is very specific in its details about who it is directed at—Eilish’s ex Brandon Adams—“I don’t talk shit about you on the internet…’cause that shit’s embarrassing,” she howls against the torrent of distorted guitars and thundering drums. “You were my everything and all that you did was make me fucking sad.”
It’s an enormous, final youthful scream into the void, the song ending in feedback that cuts out abruptly before what, in this context, is a quiet, reflective epilogue to Eilish’s narrative, “Male Fantasy.”
And what I think I have found to be so infuriating about the comment my insufferable co-worker made so long ago—two words that have, for some reason, stuck with me all this time—is, that it, unnecessarily makes a baseless comparison of two young women operating within contemporary popular music, and attempts to pit them against one another.
Is Lorde not edgy? How so?
Was Eilish edgy because her hair was dyed green and black? Is she still edgy now because she is slowly embracing her femininity?
Is their music similar—maybe. Is there overlap in their audiences—perhaps.
But can’t they be themselves, and make their own art, without comparison?
If there is a conceit, or a thesis, to Happier Than Ever as a whole, or a “project,” it’s in the refrain to “My Future,” where Eilish swoons, “I’m in love with my future—can’t wait to meet her. I’m in love…but not with anybody else; just want to get to know myself.”
Even when it falters, Happier Than Ever is an accessible, at times wild, and always impressive album that pushes Eilish creatively, and it finds her, yes, “getting older” (whatever that means for her, and to you) but doing so fiercely and gracefully, embracing her future head on, with open arms, and allowing us as listeners to watch the maturation and development in artistry.
1- So Eilish’s Wikipedia lists her full name as Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell and folks, I don’t know if that’s true or not. So it didn’t seem smart to use it here.
2- I think I was buying a heavy, corduroy winter jacket, and a pair of jeans that, while fitting nicely, are pre-distressed with enormous holes in the knees and I know I am more than likely too washed to be wearing.
3- Yes, I know Urban Outfitters is owned by some kind of awful person and I’m sorry.
4- Let’s keep it funky, this song is the weakest on the album.
5- Maxim or something adjacent, I’m sure.
6- This is just an aside to quickly mention I had, at one point in the week I spent writing this, intended to write something about how I, too, am getting older, but I am objectively not aging well, but I was uncertain how to expand upon this idea within the context of where the piece ended up, and how to shoehorn it in, so I skipped it, because the review is already, like, long enough as it is.
Happier Than Ever is out now via Darkroom/Interscope.