Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Pop | Electronica
Sometimes you need to be true to yourself, even if it means swimming against the current. That’s part of what made Billie Eilish the biggest artist in the world right now: she was uncompromising, determined to carve her own path with her own unique style, no matter how outside the box it seemed at the time. Quirky, fun and off-kilter, at times dark and unsettling, while somehow maintaining iconic earworm hooks all the while. Before her debut dropped she was a pop oddity, a world apart from what everyone else was doing, and now it is difficult to imagine the pop landscape without her influence. By going against the grain she earned a rapid rise to the top, becoming the voice of a generation in many ways, and in turn gained a degree of scrutiny and idolisation that’s above and beyond what even most big name artists experience.
The torrid trials of being so prominent in the public eye, and locked firmly in the sights of the world’s media, is the central pillar that her sophomore album is built around. Lyrically Happier Than Ever is an unflinching and unrelenting exploration of the dark side of Billie’s success, and all the ways it’s been frustrating her and eroding her spirit. ‘NDA’ shares how fame has made her unable to lead a normal life and maintain any source of privacy – “30 under 30 for another year, I can barely go outside, I think I hate it here, Maybe I should think about a new career, Somewhere in Kauai where I can disappear”. ‘Overheated’ and the spoken word interlude ‘Not My Responsibility’ both hit back at the media’s obsession with her body image, while ‘Therefore I Am’ details the struggle of fake friends trying to get close to her, purely to use her name for clout. While for much of the run time Happier Than Ever plays as a break-up album, even these moments are shown through the lens of the dark side of fame. In many tracks the lack of privacy, or a sense that they were in love with the idea of her as perceived by the media rather than the real thing, is made to seem like the final nail in the coffin.
Though I’m sure people will see their own struggles reflected to a lesser degree, in reality Billie’s situation is one which few people, if anyone, can say they’ve really experienced. Few people know the plight first-hand, and I think fewer still would be able to articulate it this well. It’s all too easy to scoff and say “well, there are worse things than being rich and famous!”, but Billie speaks from the heart in a way that makes it hard not to empathise.
But while I have no qualms with the lyricism, when it comes to the music that’s where I feel the need to be true to myself. I’m going to have to swim against the current of glowing praise and say that the record is a deeply dull and unengaging listen. So much of what made Billie’s debut stand out is glaringly absent on this follow up, especially so on the barren A side. No big hooks, no earworm melodies, no sudden left turns mid-song to keep you on your toes, just uninteresting arrangements plodding along. The soft jazzy style on ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ feels at odds with the grating beat, the glitchy drone that closes ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’ outstays its welcome, and the abrasive electronica fever dream of ‘Oxytocin’ would be right at home in the kinds of headache inducing nightclubs that I’d never wish to visit.
While I didn’t like every experiment that When We All Fall Asleep embarked upon, I appreciated its inventive spark and unpredictability. Much of the A side here however feels more like a dirge to be endured rather than enjoyed. Without the same irreverent wit and eclectic arrangements it sounds like a middle of the road album that could have come from anyone, and would likely have been forgotten were a different name attached.
Things do pick up a little in the second half, with the understated groove of ‘Lost Cause’, the gorgeous acoustic balladry of ‘Your Power’, and the slow burning title track being the main highlights, but by this point the album has been too much of a slog to make the payoff worthwhile. I think it’s perfectly possible to write a record that is frank about your own personal emotions and insecurities (as well as addressing their root cause from larger issues in our society), while also providing memorable choruses and fleshed out arrangements. Happier Than Ever is superb at the former, but falls flat with the latter, and while it says some important things I certainly didn’t find it an enjoyable listen.