Posted inCultures

Review: Billie Eilish’s ‘Happier Than Ever’

Illustration by Emily Perkins

‘I’m happier than ever, at least that’s my endeavor’- Billie sings on the album’s opening track, ‘Getting Older’. This being a Billie Eilish album, the title was always going to have a deal of irony. The cover art, showing a tear running down her face as she looks into the distance, more or less confirmed this.

However, on this album, Billie displays more than the edgy character that both fans and critics sometimes see her as. With versatile and stellar production from her brother Finneas, Billie has produced an album that showcases her maturity and personal growth while also being brutally honest about her flaws and fears.

This album undoubtedly falls short of the instant catchiness and chart potential of her previous records. Billie has nothing to prove on that front, and operates with greater creative freedom to produce an album that relates to her life experience in the two years since she last dropped. 

The promotion for the album was stripped back compared to the oversaturation of her media presence in 2019. Given the calls to cancel her over clips of her singing offensive Tyler, the Creator lyrics (which you could argue were overblown given she was a 13 year old at the time), she must have been grateful for the quieter rollout. With the release of her documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, she made the only real statement that needed to be made to her fans. 

There’s been a proliferation of music documentaries, with Netflix seeming to be handing out funding to any takers willing to provide footage of themselves looking moody on their tour bus. Even with some of the standard ‘popstar complaining’ present in the documentary, Billie did not seek to produce carefully managed propaganda, as other musician docs have done (the Dr. Dre, Taylor Swift and to a lesser extent Gaga come to mind). 

Instead, it tried to help fans understand the person behind the platinum selling artist, shedding light on her family, relationships and the effect that stardom has had on her life and mental health. Released months before the album was even announced, it seems as if the purpose of this documentary was to work alongside the album to help Billie feel more understood by her fans.

This set the tone for Billie’s output in 2021, as her new offering places far less emphasis on the general angst of When We All Fall Asleep and much more on specific personal issues she has faced in both the public eye and in her private life.

In the documentary, there is footage of an argument between Billie, her mother and Finneas in 2019, where Billie is opposed to writing an accessible pop hit to promote the album. With Interscope giving her more freedom on this project, she has gone with her own artistic vision, with the album’s singles this year lacking the infectiousness of most of the tracks on her debut. Instead, she announced the album with the single ‘Your Power’, a sad but defiant ballad about an abusive and toxic relationship. Those who’d seen the documentary linked the poignant lyrics to the toxic relationship Billie had with her ex when she was only 16 and he was much older, and the song’s message about grooming and abuse hit that much deeper with context. Many of the lyrics on the album become ever more haunting in this way, as Billie alludes to how she’s dealt with the pain she’s experienced in recent years.

Lyrically, abuse itself does not seem to be a primary theme, but rather it feeds into the theme of how Billie has used all her negative experiences to grow and mature. On the title track, which she describes as being ‘the most therapeutic song I’ve ever recorded’, she pulls out some of her most powerful vocals yet, rising above distorted guitars against her ex-boyfriend. It’s a track unlike any she’s made so far, and stands as the climax of the album.

Sonically, the album is a progression from what we’ve heard before. Finneas is on the boards for every track, and the partnership between the siblings makes any Billie project a refreshing change from the current pop landscape. Pop fans are nowhere near sick of prolific producers like Jack Antonoff; he continues to provide incredible instrumentals to some of the best albums out. However, the fact Finneas produces almost exclusively for his sister makes Billie’s albums stand out that bit more from the crowd.

The extremes of the album’s sound are showcased on two back-to-back songs. ‘Oxytocin’ takes a left turn, being a lustful electronic track where Billie sings about God being unable to resist joining her and her lover. The heavy production, paired with Billie’s repetitive and infectious hook seem designed to go crazy in a live setting, in sharp contrast to ‘Goldwing’. The shortest track on the album opens with heavenly vocals singing an ancient Hindu poem, with her verses lyrically describing an innocent angel facing the dark world trying to tear it apart. These sounds feed into the themes of the record, with Billie being both vulnerable and defiant in the face of the pressures of her life.

While this album is definitely interesting in giving a deeper insight into Billie, it has inescapable drawbacks as a commercial project that will probably hinder it from being seen as significant in the way her debut or even her first EP was. Though it might be admirable for an artist to prioritise their own self-exploration over fans desiring playlist material, it means the album will make far less of an impact, shown in the projected first-week sales for this project being around 100k lower than the previous album. Happier Than Ever will not go down as one of the most memorable of the year, and in all likelihood will not be remembered as a peak for Billie musically, but perhaps one where she forged her own identity lyrically.

It seems as though Billie finding herself has led to the release of a transitional album, where she explores her sound and identity before she can more confidently move on to whatever she has planned next. For an artist who is only 19, this may prove to be an incredibly sensible decision, even if it leaves some fans wanting for another year or two.