Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Review: Happier Than Ever • Billie Eilish



“How dare you? And how could you? Will you only feel bad when they find out? If you could take it all back, would you? Try not to abuse your power,” Billie Eilish tells her audience on “Your Power,” a ballad as airy as it is commanding. The warning – a standout moment from her record Happier Than Ever – comes from a woman who has been hurt, perhaps because she is also someone who has collected more power in just five years than most people will in a lifetime. A global firestorm started with just a few flickers: Her 2017 debut extended play Don’t Smile At Me entered the U.S. charts at 185, and its singles weren't hits in a traditional sense. But by January 2020, her celebrity had swollen into an unstoppable starburst when she earned the four biggest awards at the year’s Grammy Award ceremony. Her new bleach blonde hair – a whiplash from her signature green and black gradient – shot seven of her posts into the top 20 most liked photographs in Instagram's history. All eyes were, and still are, glued on Billie Eilish. Even under all that pressure and with all that power, Billie Eilish conveys herself on her sophomore record from a new perspective: Her own, unbridled and exposed.

Within one record, Eilish can shapeshift between seemingly unrelated spaces and perspectives. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? houses both “Bury a Friend,” a threat from the monster under the bed, and “When the Party’s Over,” a hushed ballad in which she leaps from one velvety string section to the next. On Happier Than Ever, meanwhile, Eilish reconciles not only the poles of her musicality – “My Future” zips together some bluesy inflections into its pop song sheathing, and electronic bass slices up a vintage organ on “I Didn’t Change My Number” – but also her public and private lives. As the gold medalist in the marathon of kids who raced to their laptops after hearing Lana Del Rey and The 1975 architect the world in black and blue hues, Eilish breaks away from the fictional and makes an arresting journalization of fame’s unsavory underbelly via malleable pop landscape. She and brother Finneas paint her electronic music in various acoustic watercolors, ultimately making a more eclectic and unexpected record than her last – one that makes a stronger statement when listened in sequence, a revolt against the new expectation of segmented virality. While something like “Goldwing” segues between chamber choir and rhythm-heavy whisper pop in one smooth resolve, “Not My Responsibility” is a three-minute slam poetry session dependent on its successor, the minimalist “OverHeated.”

Happier Than Ever captures more accurately Billie Eilish, the human being, and much less Billie Eilish, the curated teen star: It’s most evident in a reflective cut like “Your Power,” yet the cocky, only half-sarcastic moment in “Therefore I Am” still feels like a playful revelation of her own success and its consequences. Then there are her personal relationships – much like her relationship with the rich and famous, her romantic ones are unorthodox. “I bought a secret house when I was 17. Haven’t had a party since I got the keys. Had a pretty boy over but he couldn’t stay. On his way out, made him sign an NDA,” she recounts on “NDA,” a jarring, auto-tuned tribute to her underhanded dating lifestyle. With “Oxytocin,” a junglebeat rush matches the thrill of secrecy: “I wanna do bad things to you. Don’t wanna treat you well. […] And what would people say if they listened through the wall?” The album’s most fulfilling moment, however, comes from a relationship’s demise – or at the very least, distance between its participants. A vocal and ukulele sketch gives way to the title track’s blown-out electric guitars, weaponizing an otherwise inelegant stanza like an atomic bomb: "And I don’t talk shit about you on the internet, never told anyone anything bad. ’Cause that shit’s embarrassing, you were my everything, and all that you did was make me fuckin’ sad."

A narrow stream travels down her cheek, catching a studio flashbulb's glimmer, as Billie Eilish poses for her album cover. The album feels a lot like the shiny teardrop – is it produced by triumph or by defeat? As it turns out, a little of each. She seeks and achieves small victories under fame’s cruel reign – including a more significant win with Happier Than Ever. The record redecorates Billie Eilish’s musical landscape with swatches and patterns both familiar and new, yet it’s not particularly dazzling at every second. It submerges its listeners into its most compelling moments in good time – a quality that can be appreciated dependent on a listener’s patience. However, it is worth the dedicated hour to digest the full story from a young woman whose narrative has been otherwise framed through myopic snippets – tabloid columns, blog one-liners, Tik Tok clips, and a plethora of other multimedia static necessary to sustain a 21st century career in entertainment. But to Billie Eilish, this isn’t entertainment. In fact, she tells us on opening gut punch “Getting Older” that “things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now.” This is her life, expounded across a record for a world that made her happier than ever – or did it?

Happier Than Ever is available now under Interscope Records.

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Maira Gall