If you’re an aficionado of the confessional school of pop songwriting, then waking up to the release of Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” should feel like Christmas morning. Not that anything about it feels too neatly tied up with a bow. Her second full-length album hits a sweet spot where the mixed emotions and occasionally self-contradicting feelings about love and fame seem to spill out in real-time, even as the intricacy of the production and even the vocal rhythms betray the secret that this stuff has all been, you know, worked on. That intersection where things somehow seem perfectly formed and perfectly messy at the same time? For some listeners, it might be the happiest place on earth.
What it isn’t: loud, or even particularly mezzo most of the time. Eilish is pretty much playing arenas from here on out, as far as anyone can foresee, but she and her collaborator brother Finneas have resisted the temptation, if ever there was any, to make the message meet the medium by coming up with any bangers to fill the hockey-rink-sized space. It’s an album that feels more intimate than the first one, and the first one was pretty intimate. “Happier Than Ever” has a few explosive moments — the second half of the title track, which is basically a wall of distortion, definitely counts — and there’s tension to even her lowest simmers. But anything as room-shaking as “You Should See Me in a Crown” or “Bad Guy”? Not really. And that should be all right by most of the fan base, which is already well prepared to lean in instead of be blasted back. It’s a fabulous headphones record; how it’ll go over at the Fabulous Forum is something to worry about later.
So much of the album has already been out there that it seemed possible the full release might seem anticlimactic. Seeing as how six of the 16 tracks previously entered the sphere and have been picked to death (five as singles and a sixth, the spoken-word piece “Not My Responsibility,” as a video), you might have wondered how many think-therefore-I-am-pieces about Eilish the world had left in it by the time release day rolled around. The answer should be: plenty more. It does feel a little weird hearing “My Future” roll in as the fourth track after three previously unheard ones, exactly one year to the day after it was released as a single, like a brand new album is being interrupted by a greatest-hits collection. But Eilish has enough to say, and a riveting enough voice to sing it in, that the album doesn’t feel like it’s been spoiled by all the bread crumbs along the way. All that intermediary music and a documentary and an Internet-breaking Vogue cover, too, and she still doesn’t feel overexposed. (Note to other singers who might take from her ubiquitiousness that never leaving the public eye is a good idea: Don’t try this at home.)
“My Future,” on its one-year anniversary, turns out not to be too indicative of where the rest of the material was headed — yes, maybe, in its fairly subdued tone and as a showcase for Eilish as a vocal stylist, but not so much in its general feeling of contentedness. So much of what we’ve heard about her since “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” made her a global sensation in 2019 is about how she’s in a better place and overcame some of her adolescent demons with a strong family support system. The sensible-shoes maturity of “My Future” cemented that impression. But was it possible that — to turn a Bruce Banner phrase around — we wouldn’t like her if she’s not angry? As it turns out, we don’t have to find out, at least yet. “Happier Than Ever” is a title with probably multiple levels of sincerity and irony: Eilish has allowed that she is happier… emphasis on the –ier. But, maybe to her personal detriment and our benefit, it’s a pretty pissed-off record. The Grammy-winning single “Everything I Wanted” (which Eilish has left as a stand-alone and not included here) was a tip-off that she had a few feelings about famousness, and Eilish doesn’t stint on them here. Narcissistic boyfriends and older men who took advantage of her youth also figure in — with some uncertainty left over how those categories might overlap. Suicidal thoughts and night terrors no longer figure in, like they did on the first album; on “Happier Than Ever,” Eilish, at a post-self-harming 19, is dealing with the everyday indignities of what’s left to put up with when you know you’re going to stick around. Fortunately, the stuff that haywire daydreams are made of can be as intriguing as lucid nightmares.
It’s an old truism that artists have an entire lifetime to write their first album, then sometimes spend the remainder of their lifetime writing about how unhappy the first album’s success made them. That’s a trap often best left avoided — but Eilish makes it work for her, in the considerable parts of the album that do go there, with a lot of trenchant observation and self-aware humor to go with the heightened levels of post-celebrity self-consciousness. The whole record is not about that, but she’s such an interesting self-commentator, you almost wouldn’t mind as it was. “I feel you watching… always,” she whispers in the middle of “Not My Responsibility,” and it’s a breaking of the fourth wall so intense you almost feel Eilish in front of you, scrutinizing you back. That particular monolog deals with the body-shaming, male-gaze lust and every double-standard in-between she’s dealt with, and if it feels a bit op-ed compared to the rest of the album, she’s earned the right to editorialize. Most everything else is observational and conversational, though, in often seriocomic fashion — the repeated references to her stalker, which is a place not even Taylor Swift would go; the paparazzi she can no longer avoid (“Is it news? News to who? That I really look just like the rest of you?”); the half-hilarious, half-poignant admission that she made a date sign an NDA before sending him off into the night. All these details should make her less relatable, in theory, but counterintuitively, it has the opposite effect. We all know enough about the trappings of celebrity at this point to figure that Eilish is expressing exactly how we’d feel if we were in her shoes — sort of like a much more beautiful variation on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where the famous person’s aggravations don’t really seem that far off from ours.
That does lead to maybe the scariest admission on the album: “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed, now.” There, encapsulated in one choice couplet, is every musician’s worst fear — or what should be their worst fear. If it felt like Eilish had really given into that when it comes to actually making the music, “Happier Than Ever” would be one sad album. But for all of its snark and kvetching, it’s really a joyous experience. There’s not an iota of cynicism infecting the love that she and Finneas have for sound and what you can do within the minimal volume levels of a mostly quiet, two-hander, one-man-band effort. The dynamics are so subtle that it almost makes “When We All Fall Asleep…” sound like a show-off record. Finneas has his demonstrative moments, as a co-writer/producer; the record-scratching effect that gives “I Didn’t Change My Number” its extensive outro is the kind of fun he can specialize in, and when “Oxytocin” leans in harder on a beat to get you on your feet, it’s a welcome breath of hot air. But most everything here exists to frame Eilish’s voice, which only gets raised once or twice. She has resisted being spoken of as “whispering” in her singing, and even though that’s generally meant as a compliment, you can understand how she might take the term as reductive. Her phrasing is exquisite, and ever more jazz-like, even when what she’s singing is full of rock ‘n’ roll surliness or has a rapper’s cadence. Finneas is also stacking her own backing vocals more than he’s adding his own, but there’s a kind of “blood harmony” here in the co-writing, even more than the singing — every lyric is so perfectly laid out in how it fits the melody that it seems to be the product of one writer, not two. (Which is something we rarely get to say in the modern era of 10-person co-writes.) The sentiments may feel unexpurgated, but the final musical effect is kind of like seeing a series of raw, unfiltered diary entries unspool in a succession of your favorite fonts.
It’s not just music that Eilish has a saving love for, anyway. She allows herself some moments of real love, and/or just true lust, on the album, with some fellows whose evenings with her maybe didn’t end with the NDA. Or maybe the objects of her affection in “Billie Bossa Nova” or “Halley’s Comet” are fantasies, for now, but it’s good to have them, as antidotes to the toxic men of “I Didn’t Change My Number,” “Lost Cause” and “Your Power.” A dawning self-love remains the real inamorata, in “My Future,” but the record benefits from having a bit of “Silly me to fall in love with you” mooniness to at least slightly counterbalance the crescendoing “Made all my moments your own / Just fucking leave me alone” screamo-scorn of the title track.
Lest this all seem like so much solipsism — and why not? It’s what grand pop music is based on — Eilish does have an eye for the big picture, too. “Everybody Dies” goes all in, gorgeously, on the subject of mortality, as its title would suggest. “You oughta know / That even when it’s time / You might not wanna go,” she tells her fans, some of whom are young enough they might not have considered this before… then she closes the song out by adding, “But it’s okay / And it’s alright to fold / But you are not alone / And you are not unknown” — and damn if, in this moment of comfort, she doesn’t sound almost… maternal.
So it goes without saying at this point, but let’s say it anyway: WTF? Still 19, and making music this advanced? Really? In the very opening lines of the album, Eilish sings: “I’m getting older / I think I’m aging well.” This is one of the only times on the record where it’s difficult to know if Eilish is kidding or being sincere about how she’s been weathering things as a teenager. If she feels like a veteran, that’s how we can reasonably feel about her too: Eilish has the kind of spookily precocious persona we feel like we’ve spent a lot more years getting to know than we have. That she’s really still taking relative baby steps into being an artist is part of the thrill of “Happier Than Ever,” even if you don’t have to be thinking about her future for the record to be its own damn happy reward.