On her second album, Happier Than Ever, the follow-up to 2019’s Grammy Award-winning When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie Eilish consistently embraces the role of the observer. Her musings about the pitfalls of fame land as blog-ish commentaries as much as diaristic lyricism. From a sonic standpoint, rather than doubling down on the pop elements of When We All Fall Asleep, Happier Than Ever mostly navigates a mix of downtempo and glitchy ambience, framing Eilish as Gen Z’s resident chanteuse.
“Not My Responsibility” appears toward Happier Than Ever’s halfway mark and serves as a spoken-word critique of how society commodifies its celebrities. “Is my value based only on your perception?” she asks, adopting a voice reminiscent of a narcotized Marilyn Monroe, probably the most commodified icon in PR history. Thematically, the piece reaffirms the gist of the album’s opening track, “Getting Older”, a synthy, stringy, and languorous take on life post-acclaim. “Things I once enjoyed,” she confesses, “just keep me employed now.” She adds, “I’m happier than ever / at least that’s my endeavor,” pointing to the irony of the project’s title. The cover image, too, capturing a pensive and tear-stained Eilish garbed in what resembles a hospital robe, suggests that life might have been better for Eilish before success arrived.
Throughout When We All Fall Asleep, Eilish reveled in the legacy of confessional poetry, goth/neo-grunge rock, and the outrage/self-loathing of metal. Happier Than Ever, however, emanates a less derivative and more equanimous sense of grief. Popularity is a lens for Eilish’s perspective on culture at large, even as she strives to appreciate the everyday experiences of dating, indulging in brief romances, and maneuvering quirky breakups, as conveyed in the synthy and beat-driven “I Didn’t Change My Number”. Perhaps Eilish’s initial thought was that Happier might serve as a Bildungsroman; instead, it occurs more as an elegy to childhood.
“Oxytocin” is the album’s highlight, a swingy, stoner-ish track built around busy percussive elements and Eilish’s steamy and slightly strained vocal. With “GOLDWING”, Eilish descends into mumble-song, her voice wafting across a swirl of synths and mid-tempo trip-hop. “Lost Cause”, undergirded by electro-beats and melodic synth-runs, reveals Eilish expressing discernment as to who she picks as a partner, realizing that such quotidian concerns as occupation and income do indeed hold importance as one transitions into adulthood.
At roughly 56 minutes in length, Happier loses traction occasionally and would’ve benefited from further vetting, particularly mid-sequence. “Halley’s Comet” is a slow-burn ballad highlighting the nuances of Eilish’s voice but ultimately drags. “Overheated” spotlights some compellingly layered percussive elements but is like a siren call that fails to seduce. “Everybody Dies”, on the other hand, reenrolls the listener. It best illustrates Eilish’s vocal abilities and indebtedness to a range of progenitors, including Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, k.d. lang, and Amy Winehouse.
The penultimate song on the album, the title track is a folkish tune that, at least overtly, addresses a lover with whom the magic has faded. “When I’m away from you,” Eilish admits, “I’m happier than ever.” However, the song serves as an oblique recapitulation that Eilish is possibly more content when she’s removed from her fans and critics than she is when immersed in the requirements of her newfound life. In this way, Eilish winds down an album bookended and punctuated by wry op-eds on star culture and the thorny side of capitalism. In terms of stylistic progression, the album shows Eilish largely abandoning her erstwhile pop trajectory. Instead, she revels in lowkey tempos, sultry atmospheres, and vocal intonations that would be perfect for a small, hazy jazz club on a Friday night. Make that a Sunday night.