It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe Billie Eilish‘s debut album When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go as a pretty seismic release. Not only did it establish her as probably the major musical figure of her age, it also won three Grammys, led to a Vogue cover and resulted in her becoming the youngest person to record a Bond theme.
It all resulted in Eilish becoming something a bit more than a mere pop star, and Happier Than Ever comes steeped in that weight of expectations that could crush a lesser figure. Thankfully, Eilish’s second album meets those expectations and more – while it fits quite neatly besides her debut, there’s also some impressive signs of progression.
Like that debut, she’s still working in tandem with her brother Finneas O’Connell, and that tense, slightly other-wordly minimal approach is in full effect. This time around though, there are added touches – some unexpected detours into bossa nova, full band rock-outs and lyrics about Eilish’s post-fame lifestyle, full of NDAs, media perception and stalkers.
It may seem preposterous that a 19 year old can sing a line like “I’m getting older, I think I’m ageing well” as Eilish does on opening track Getting Older, but she inbues the line with such world-weary ennui that you buy into it straight away. The song itself is also a warning shot for any showbiz parents looking to put their offspring on the stage – lines such as “things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed now” summing up the danger of a child starlet lifestyle.
There’s a lot to take in on Happier Than Ever, and it’s a record that works best listening to late at night through headphones. Oxytocin, in particular, is a disco banger that also seems almost claustrophobic- skittish, relentless beats skip around amidst some industrial bursts of synths, and the result is genuinely compelling. On the other end of the musical scale is the acoustic ballad Your Power retelling an abusive relationship on which Eilish’s voice has never sounded better.
These explorations of new sounds is where Happier Than Ever works best. Billie Bossa Nova is, as the title suggests, a light samba strut that’s probably already being negotiated by TV executives to soundtrack a love scene or two, while the title track begins as a whispered hush before building up to full-on cathartic rock. It’s a sign of her preternatural confidence that she can also throw in an ambient spoken-word track called Not My Responsibility about body image.
Like her debut, Happier Than Ever is not without flaws – at 16 tracks, it’s a bit too long, and there are a couple of tracks such as Everybody Dies that feel a bit underdeveloped. Yet that’s a minor quibble, and songs like NDA (about the struggles of dating when you also have a stalker) and the languid, hypnotic Lost Cause already sound like future classics.
What sets Eilish apart from her contemporaries is her willingness to be a bit different. That’s demonstrated all over this album, but nowhere more so than in the closing Male Fantasy, in which Eilish critiques the male gaze in pornography (“I can’t stand the dialogue, she would never be that satisfied”). It’s a startling end to an album that consolidates and enhances Billie Eilish’s reputation as one of the stellar figures of her generation.