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  • Writer's pictureRyan ANTIART

ALBUM REVIEW: Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever

Grade: B-

Every generation has their young pop star that captures their particular feelings and thoughts. In 1999, it was the naive and innocent Brittney Spears, and in 2013, it was Lorde with her dark and mysterious Pure Heroine. It always goes the same way: the first album showcases a clear talent level without any experience, and the second album needs to show that same skill coupled with new findings. For Lorde, Melodrama was her re-debut with the added experience of heartbreak, touring, traveling, and nights at the club. At age 16 or 17 or even 18, it’s extremely hard to gauge what will end up being important to you, and that’s ok. That’s why I prefaced my Olivia Rodrigo review many times with “the sophomore album will show growth and specificity”. Billie Eilish has gone through a similar metamorphosis. On her debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, the homespun pop, electronic and alt-R&B that her producer brother FINNEAS crafted for her contained lots of lyrics about early stages of love, being at the top, and when there was nothing else to sing about, a murderous character took over for a track like “bury a friend”. While the beat work has pretty creative and the album had massive commercial and critical success (5 fucking Grammys), it lacked in content. It was all pretty surface level, with flashy production hiding some of the blemishes and boring parts.

So the question is, does the sophomore LP provide the gritty details and new path for Billie to grow? Maybe my co-writers would disagree, but I’m hitting the override button and saying that this album does that effortlessly. This is a far more comprehensive and mature vision of her style and what she seeks to accomplish with it. She gets self-reflective on the opener with lines like “Last week I realized I crave pity/When I tell a story I make everything sound worse” and others referencing her newfound ultra-fame. The beat is steady and symphonic, underlining the sadness that Billie feels beneath the blonde hair and ideal lighting. The following “I Didn’t Change My Number” throws it back to the Yeezus-inspired debut days with dogs growling laced into the production and a dark-rave closing section. Thematically, the track delves into this new selectivity she has in her life, something that bleeds into other great tracks like “OverHeated” and my favorite song on the entire project, “NDA”. “NDA” is like triumph through defeat, she is getting every single thing she wants, including pretty boys on demand, and she still feels this intense urge to just flee the country. The track’s creepy, plinky beat is pure Billie and FINNEAS, if someone were to ask me what their “sound” is, this would be in. A little sweet, a little cruel and a little electronic intrigue.

Generally, the album remains whisper calm. On the whole, I really enjoy Billie’s confidence in her voice, her body and the way she operates. “Not My Responsibility”, which was played during parts of her previous tour, makes a welcome return here. The track is essentially an elongated interlude with Billie telling us her body is not our concern. It is stark and real, and will probably help a lot of younger girls who have confidence issues, so I fuck with it, good on Billie. Vocally, she never feels the need to feign excitement and do vocal acrobatics to impress as she did on her first album, she understands that this album is already #1 in the country and she has the freedom to sound dejected and despondent, and that makes for some classic tracks, like the bumping and sexually-charged “Oxytocin”, which needs to be remixed into a deep house track. At first I really didn’t like “Lost Cause”, but her down low performance reminds me of Massive Attack on a calm day, just absolutely dissing her ex saying “and you got no job” over this bassy trip-hop beat. Her vocal performance on the chorus is excellent, but it’s like she doesn’t step off the throne to belt it out, she’s still back calmly sipping or smoking on something.

As if I didn’t say it enough already, the production by FINNEAS is top-notch. On the last album, it had more of an HD Remaster to a DIY-feel, this album sounds like it was recorded in 8K. It’s richly layered and detailed with all these snaps, acoustic guitars, samples, laughs, etc. on nearly every song. Even a simple, shuffling track like “Billie Bossa Nova” is secretly loaded with instrumentation lingering in the background like strings and bass synths. “Halley’s Comet” is a shining moment for him and Billie for that matter. While Billie is reminiscing about a lover, saying he comes around less than the titular comet, FINNEAS lays down a really tasteful piano, jazzy drums and lots of little samples. As the song starts to come to a close, it switches up to this ‘70s vaporwave Mallcore shit that just makes the hair on my arms raise. I don’t even know what she’s singing about but the background makes me feel a certain type of way, that’s powerful production right there. Even on songs that I don’t particularly like, such as “Therefore I Am” and “GOLDWING”, the production nearly saves them from their simplistic songwriting. I think the best team up between the two siblings has got to be the title track, which would’ve worked well as a closer. It starts off simple with a ukulele, and Billie singing “when I’m away from you, I’m happier than ever”. As the track moves along it adds small elements like drums, then switches the ukelele up to an acoustic guitar, and from there, all Hell breaks loose. Electric guitars start to riff, then blaze, and there is a deep and dubby drum section that just transitions over to a live kit. She is brutal in her lyricism “You only listen to your fucking friends/I don’t relate to you...I’d never treat me this shitty/You made me hate this city”. All I can say is, I feel bad for whoever this song is about.

While I love this album, I’d be remiss not to mention a few of the flaws that ended up shaping my grade. Having nothing to prove puts a pop artist in a unique and difficult position, if there’s nothing to prove then why try? Well, I think that she tries on this album on a great deal of these songs, but some of these just feel like spinning the wheels. The aforementioned “GOLDWING” definitely feels that way, as does the painfully trite “Everybody Dies”. If she was a less known artist, she could maybe say something unique and brutal about this subject that hasn’t already been said, but that’s not what happens. The closer “Male Fantasy” feels unnecessary after the power of “Happier Than Ever”, and conveys nothing that the excellent single “Your Power” didn’t already. With a title like “Male Fantasy”, I expected this cool Metal Gear Solid/Ex Machina electronic barnburner, but we just got a basic acoustic cut that sounds like the last Clairo album, but not as good. I think the larger budget and increased pressure to appeal to a wider audience definitely kneecapped this album in ways the debut was able to avoid, but I feel as if this is a more natural and beautiful progression of her sound that resulted in her best album. Just like Brittney or Madonna or Lorde before her, she is out of the debut cocoon and has blossomed into a bright butterfly. A sad one, but a butterfly nonetheless.

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