Coping with fame or romantic relationships, as Billy Eilish croons, isn’t easy, but are we still enthralled by more confessions of the tough and the dark?
It’s retro-tinged, it’s melancholic, it’s tuneful, and it is destined to be a successful follow-up to 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?—the album that worn Billie Eilish’s (and her brother Finneas O’Connell) five Grammies. It’s quite a feat for what Mr O’Connell called “home-made cookies”. The sophomore Happier than Ever, released two weeks ago, boasts more refined and rarefied song craft, and is, therefore, poised to repeat the feat in the next music award season. Ms Eilish creates music far more sophisticated than other recording artistes much older than her. She expresses emotions the average late-teen rarely emotes or so ardently. Her songs, woke and ever so anguish-filled, are not about musical trends; they are song-writing that tugs at heartstrings. On the cover of Happier than Ever, the newly blonde Billie Eilish is in tears.
Teen confessional-pop is, of course, (still) a thing. Singing about growing-up pains is the stuff of the rapid rise to stardom these days, and if you do it all with a smidgen of alt posturing, all the better. Ms Eilish packages herself vocally as an old soul. She offers not Meghan Trainor’s vibrant pop or Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour-ness, but they all share the need to express periods of their lives affected by heartbreak and whatever now—and then—ails young women embracing the adult world, including, in the case of Ms Eilish, her objections when watching porn. In Male Fantasy, a guitar-driven track that would actually appeal to guys, she recounts: “home alone, tryin’ not to eat/distract myself with pornography” and continues to point out the untruth of such performances since, as she believes, the actresses in them “would never be/That satisfied, it’s a male fantasy”.
On the whole, Happier than Ever encourages you to put your player (or streaming service) on loop. It is not manic; it’s nicely paced, and, in parts, it makes for the listening you’d keep for between you and the four walls of your bedroom. It’s ideal for listening alone, whether streamed through your smart speaker or via wireless earbuds. Our problem—if it’s right to call it that—with this album is Ms Eilish’s singing. Don’t get us wrong, she can sing. In fact, we like her voice: the clarity, the roundedness, the warmth, the not-girlish vocal styling. But it is how she used that voice that can sometimes annoy. In this album, Ms Eilish sounds as if she is singing to herself, as if testing a tune. The words won’t come out wholeheartedly, the phrasing too manipulated in the throat. She metronomes between amusing herself and seducing you. It is appreciable that she does not scream, she does not show off in unnecessary vocal gymnastics, but sometimes it is better not to let the singing get in the way of the song.
Many of her fans say her style is “intimate”. Since she sings almost entirely in the first person (except in GOLDWING), it is “natural” that she sounds as if she is in your attentive company. Happier than Ever is, therefore, ideal for solo listing, whether streamed through your smart speaker or via a pair of wireless earbuds. Perhaps it is with such intimacy that you’ll know she’s Getting Older (“I wish someone had told me I’d be doin’ this by myself”) and, in the talk-not-sing, Anne Clark-ish Not my Responsibility (“If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman/ If I shed the layers, I’m as slut“), that criticisms of her body bothers, if not hurt, her. Some songs augment her indie cred, including the stand out Your Power (“Will you only feel bad when they find out?”). There are a couple of tracks that beg to be remixed for the dancefloor or your bedroom, such as the excellent Oxytocin* (“I wanna do bad things to you… You know I need you for the oxytocin”)—how many young women use such a lovely word?!—and GOLDWING (“They’re gonna tell you what you wanna hear/Then they’re gonna disappear/Gonna claim you like a souvenir/Just to sell you in a year”). Pretty hardcore stuff from a fresh post-adolescent.
*Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone that plays a part in the emotions we feel and the sensations in the body. It is also popularly known as the love hormone as it is released while we kiss and hug, and get heavy in sexual activity
Screen grab: Happier Than Ever/YouTube