Review: An album about fame? Yawn. But Billie Eilish upends clichés on sumptuous ‘Happier Than Ever’
When you fall into superstardom, where do you go?
Billie Eilish has some answers to the question on her disquieting new album, “Happier Than Ever,” and despite that title they’re hardly advertisements for the journey. In one song she laments the relentless scrutiny of her physical appearance; in another she describes the strangers — “They’re usually deranged” — who show up uninvited at her door. Even the people she allows into her rarefied air now pose a threat: “Had a pretty boy over, but he couldn’t stay,” she sings, “On his way out, made him sign an NDA.”
A vivid embodiment of the time-honored pop tradition we might call Fame Sucks, “Happier Than Ever” is 19-year-old Eilish’s followup to her smash 2019 debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” which went quadruple-platinum and made the green-haired L.A. native the youngest person ever to win all four of the Grammy Awards’ biggest prizes in a single night. (In March, the Recording Academy gave Eilish two more Grammys, including one for record of the year for “Everything I Wanted,” a between-albums single about how she could already tell that success was going to be a nightmare.)
The sudden rush of mega-celebrity wasn’t exactly preordained for a whispering, goth-attuned teenager who recorded her first album with her brother, producer Finneas O’Connell, in his childhood bedroom at the siblings’ Highland Park bungalow. Eilish sang in morbid (if witty) detail about depression and death; she starred in gruesome (if alluring) music videos in which black goo leaked from her eyes and she was stabbed with syringes. Yet in an age of political gloom and ecological disaster, her undeniably well-crafted music — and the disarmingly charming artist herself — ended up bewitching millions, as seen in R.J. Cutler’s recent a-star-is-born documentary, “The World’s a Little Blurry.”
She won’t name names, but Billie Eilish says she suffered real trauma on her way to stardom. ‘It’s embarrassing,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to tell anyone.’
All but certain to enter the album chart next week at No. 1, “Happier Than Ever” looks back at Eilish’s ascent and surveys the considerable damage: the paranoia and the loneliness and the distrust wrought by a couple of years spent struggling to acclimate to the most intense of spotlights. “30 under 30 for another year,” she sings in “NDA,” “I can barely go outside, I think I hate it here.” In “Getting Older” she admits that “things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now” — a line made all the more sad by the fact that, as a child of the internet, Eilish understands just how her complaints will read to some online.
“Last week, I realized I crave pity,” she continues, as though preempting her trolls, “When I retell a story, I make everything sound worse.”
“Happier Than Ever,” which she cowrote with her brother (who again produced), intertwines this tale of pop-star disillusionment with one about a failed relationship. But for Eilish those are more or less the same story: “Lost Cause” and the LP’s title track take aim at guys who couldn’t handle her success, while the haunting “Your Power” depicts an entertainment industry prowled by highly placed predators.
“She said you were a hero / You played the part,” she sings over delicate acoustic guitar, “But you ruined her in a year / Don’t act like it was hard.” Eilish sounds utterly drained in “Your Power,” and not only as a result of her experiences; her voice seems to channel the collective exhaustion of countless young women forced to navigate systems designed to exploit them. (That Eilish’s album dropped the same week Simone Biles went public about the pressures of the Olympics — and then was called weak — says plenty about whose mental health our culture prioritizes.)
Hard Summer festival promoter Insomniac did not require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to attend, contrary to county and state recommendations.
“Your Power” is the slowest-and-lowest moment on “Happier Than Ever,” but as a whole the album is softer, quieter, more languid than Eilish’s trap-inflected debut. The singer, who now wears a luxurious blonde-bombshell hairdo, has said she was inspired by classic torch singers like Julie London and Frank Sinatra; the pared-down arrangements, built around murmuring keyboards and gently strummed guitar, sometimes forgo drums in a way that can recall “Honeymoon,” the similarly vintage-y 2015 album by one of Eilish’s contemporary heroes, Lana Del Rey.
Why is she drawn to this Old Hollywood iconography? Perhaps it offers a bit of camouflage for someone clearly feeling so exposed; for sure, nostalgia was always going to be part of a record about how complicated Eilish’s life has become. Whatever her motivation, the dreamy-jazzy mode suits her singing, which has never sounded better than it does throughout “Happier Than Ever.”
When she emerged, Eilish’s vocal style — a breathy mumble miked so closely that you could hear her tongue clicking against her teeth — felt like a reimagining of the once-declamatory female pop voice. But music has gotten crowded since then with other radically intimate confessors, including Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers and Olivia Rodrigo; even Taylor Swift downsized her approach for last year’s “Folklore” and “Evermore,” and Lorde appears set to do the same with the upcoming “Solar Power.”
So it’s gratifying to hear Eilish still standing out in pretty yet eccentrically phrased tunes like “Halley’s Comet,” where she keeps stretching her vowels a few beats longer than you expect her to, and “Male Fantasy,” a folky acoustic ballad with a choir of barely-there Billies.
“Happier Than Ever” peppers a handful of bigger, louder numbers amid all the hushed introspection. On “Oxytocin,” Eilish rides a jackhammering club groove with giddy menace; “Therefore I Am” lurches playfully like early Eminem. The album also has several songs in which a romance hasn’t yet turned toxic, such as “Billie Bossa Nova,” about a lover who “makes me wanna … make a movie with you that we’d have to hide.”
But getting everything she wanted has changed how Eilish thinks about satisfaction. For the knockout title track, she splits the song in two, starting out crooning tenderly over Finneas’ nylon-string guitar — “When I’m away from you, I’m happier than ever” — before the track explodes into a noisy pop-punk freakout with thick distortion and stomping drums like those from another great Fame Sucks report, Nirvana’s “In Utero.”
Pushing her voice to jagged new extremes, Eilish enumerates an ex’s disappointments — his lateness, his drunk driving, his brushing off her mom — then funnels all her sorrow and rage into a single demand that goes well beyond the failings of one loser.
“Just f— leave me alone!” she screams.
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