Has the fuss around Billie Eilish really started to go down already? It’s not like that couldn’t have been predicted—the fact that Gen Z pop stars have leaned into their own disposability makes that ring as rather prophetic—but if there was one who’d stick around, all signs emphatically pointed to Billie Eilish. She had the ironclad hits and the debut album that sold like gangbusters, topped off by a live presence and energy that saw her go toe to toe with the genuine heavyweights in her field. Even if that debut album had some gaping holes in it, the waves it made and the imitators it spawned all but sealed Eilish as the conqueror elect for this generation of pop. But the fact that she’s barely been able to sustain traction with a new single feels incredibly discouraging for her, as if a fairly organic burst of hype is already beginning to fizzle out and leave her susceptible to being lapped by an even newer wave coming from behind. Maybe it’s the fact that Happier Than Ever hasn’t appeared to be tapping into her greatest attributes yet; the homegrown, muted production style has remained, but it’s the darkness and twisted undercurrents that have embodied Eilish’s material at its best, and despite the title positively creaking under the cynicism and sarcasm of its sentiment, there hasn’t been too clear an example of that yet. For Billie Eilish, it’s felt uncharacteristically drifting towards pop normalcy, and that’s never been what she’s about at her best. She’s weirder and more liable to be off-kilter than most in her lane, and by not taking advantage of that ability, it’s no wonder that Happier Than Ever has felt far less sustainable up to now.
With the full album though, things become a bit more understandable, when Happier Than Ever doesn’t have the dramatic high points of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, but it’s probably a stronger listen on aggregate. It gives the impression of Eilish settling into where an artist like her should be, refined for mainstream consumption without being totally astroturfed by the pop machine. But with every listen on Happier Than Ever, the feeling of comparative underwhelm doesn’t necessarily go away; this doesn’t feel like the product of an artist who’s watched her influence shift the pop paradigm around her, and as such, the diminished supply of palpable greatness is a lot easier to feel. It’s not bad, just like its predecessor, but the hum of ‘difficult second album’ is pronounced, perhaps even more so when the quantity of what stands out has been lessened.
In a way though, it’s not like some elements of predictability on Happier Than Ever couldn’t be seen from quite a way off. Grappling with fame and the industry was a theme that pretty much every pre-release track made it easy to parse, and for an artist who’s still as young as Eilish is launched into the position of superstar at a rather meteoric rate, there’s certainly an earned mix of desperation and exasperation that’s where Happier Than Ever shines the most consistently. The opening track Getting Older is a pretty salient mission statement, where a line like “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now” rings with the knowledge of industry corruption that’s come rushing through all at once. It manifests itself in numerous numbing ways too, from public relationships draped around and informed by fleeting concepts of Billie Bossa Nova and the title track; judgement and body shaming facilitated by a skewed, unrealistic standard of women on Not My Responsibility and OverHeated; and even abuse by the hands of powerful men with the means of washing their hands of any consequences on Your Power. When Eilish sings to the “gold-winged angel” on GOLDWING, it’s easy to see it as a more innocent version of herself, yet to be reshaped and corrupted by an industry that might seem great on the outside, but rarely winds up that way in practice. And for the attempts to bite back and assert some kind of strength—either in looking forward with optimism on my future or bringing back a wry, churlish wit on Therefore I Am—it’s hard to mask how sad and bleak Happier Than Ever really is. And yet, even beyond that, there’s the feeling that it’s all normalised and the expected outcome on a song like NDA, where she’s forced to make a guy who stayed with her for a night sign an NDA to preserve the ‘celebrity lifestyle’ that she’s been thrust into. On the other hand though, neither the expression or commentary really go as deeply as they could, but there’s definitely a mood forged on Happier Than Ever where one side can make up for the gaps left by the other. It still hits in places that a lot of modern pop doesn’t, and has that ring of a more grassroots artist at a level she still mightn’t be fully equipped to handle.
But then there’s the music itself, and the usual gulf that Eilish has had between it and the writing that’s orbited around a lot of her mainstream career. Finneas once again gives her a minimalist selection work with, this time without the earned pretensions to edginess and ‘scariness’ that her debut couldn’t necessarily hold up, but without much to replace them either. It’s certainly a more even-keeled album for the most part, in the small scale and uses of quiet and negative space that’s become Eilish’s bread and butter, but there’s not much that enthralls here overall. It’s got the vibe of what wants to be a slow burn, without any such burn, and when there’s a rather long and sprawling length to contend with—sixteen songs over almost an hour—lacking a sense of humanity or intensity to go with such a personal lyrical template feels like such a colossal oversight. As mentioned previously, the same sort of highs aren’t here, but when they’re trying to be replicated in the crunchy rattle of Oxytocin or the lurching, unstable bass of Lost Cause and Therefore I Am, they’re decent but still compromised. (Though, as a side note, the transition between NDA and Therefore I Am is probably the best moment on the album.) There’s also the title track which builds into a slamming, Wolf Alice-esque rock song, distorted production and all, which is easily the greatest instance of height the album has in terms of where that artistic license and freedom is going. Otherwise, Happier Than Ever sticks to what feels like mid-ranged lull, not low-key enough to be ethereal or unhinged enough to be weird. It’s as close to milquetoast as Eilish is liable to get, even in her vocals a lot of the time. She’s not exactly expressive at the best of times, but the deadened, subdued angle really loses its luster when there’s nothing for it to grab onto to do more. Especially when compared to the opening passage on GOLDWING where she sounds genuinely lovely in her conveyed vulnerability, a lot of Happier Than Ever feels either undercooked or underwhelming, where the moments of heightened potential brought about by the writing are missed elsewhere.
And so, like so much of Billie Eilish’s work, Happier Than Ever falls a decent bit short of the potential that it and everyone around it might be setting up. Again, it’s probably her most comprehensive and even body of work to date, but it’s also easy to see why so few of these tracks have stuck, given that they don’t have the same personality that her big hits did, and when they’re verging on it, it all falls short. The writing is great, that does need to be said, but it can only rectify so much when there’s an overall passiveness exhibited elsewhere; the emotion is there, but really leaning into it like on the title track is where those satisfying moments come from. As it stands, Happier Than Ever really only satisfies in processes of refinement and retooling, rather than any tremendous growth or reinventions. It’s good that this isn’t a direct copy or overly aggressive doubling down on the debut, but it would’ve been nice to have a bit more than this. At least then, these songs mightn’t seem as ephemeral as they’ve been up to now, and while this isn’t heralding the ‘flop era’ as plenty have been predicting, Eilish has still had far more fruitful points in her career.
For fans of: Lorde, Halsey, Finneas
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Happier Than Ever’ by Billie Eilish is out now on Darkroom / Interscope Records.