Wednesday, August 18, 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever

The more I think about it, the better I think the blonde suits her. 

Do I even really need to introduce Billie? I mean, what can I really say about her that hasn't been said a million times already. I'll get the easy stuff out of the way real quick I guess. At 14, Billie records a song with her brother Finneas called Ocean Eyes for her dance class that they post on SoundCloud, the song becomes an underground smash. One year later, she releases her dont smile at me EP and starts touring the world. In 2018, she started dropping more singles in preparation for her first album. This is about the time I started paying attention to her. On a drive with some friends after a birthday party, one of the girls in the truck says to me and the other guy in the car, "Have y'all listened to Billie Eilish before?" I'd heard her name before but I had never listened to her before. The first song she puts on was when the party's over and while I liked it, I wasn't crazy over it. Then she played us ocean eyes and I was sold. In March 2019, she released her debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? which, again, don't really know what I can say about this album that hasn't been said already. Deep, rumbling bass and occasionally sad lyrics mend incredibly well with catchy hooks, solid vocal performances, and some of the best production I heard in 2019. This album took the world by storm. The album broke I don't know how many records on debut, led to a huge arena tour, slots at huge festivals across the world like Coachella, Glastonbury, and Life Is Beautiful, and made her an unstoppable force in the music industry. 

Billie performing at the 2019 Austin City Limits Music Festival. (Photo by me)

I was lucky enough to see her live (coincidentally, with the friends who introduced me to them) at the end of the first leg of the tour and it was phenomenal. Her set design was very minimal, nothing like she was bringing to Coachella or her own headline shows. Just her, Finneas behind her on keys, Andrew Marshall on drums, and an LED screen. For an hour, she had the entire crowd in the palm of her hand and she ran through hit after hit after hit. I still remember vividly her taking the stage, standing up on a riser, and pausing for a second before bad guy started, and in the few seconds of her just standing there, it was possibly the loudest crowd I've ever stood in. While I think she did get put in a weird time slot (sub-headlining for The Cure and playing after Brittany Howard, Denzel Curry, and Orville Peck), she absolutely crushed it and I can't wait to see her again at ACL again this year. 

About a week before I saw her, Billie had announced that she was going to go on another world tour doing arenas all across the globe in 2020 and had also dropped the song Everything I Wanted, which was okay, I didn't love it, I didn't hate it. But two shows into the, yeah, you know, worldwide pandemic made it impossible to do arena shows. The tour was eventually canceled and I, along with many others, posed the question of "what's next?" Well for Billie, there was a lot in store for her 2020. She dropped a couple more songs with my future and Therefore I Am, both of which would eventually be on this album, both of which I think were great even if my future took a little bit to grow on me. Oh yeah, she also sang the theme song for the new James Bond movie, No Time To Die, which was incredible. A lot of people tried to discredit it because "grrrrr why is a pop star singing the James Bond theme song" but those people can go take a long walk on a short pier. She also did various livestream shows, put out an acoustic live album for Record Store Day, and in October 2020, told Vanity Fair that she was working on "16 songs" and loving them all. She also dropped that awesome documentary on Apple TV, The World's A Little Blurry, which, even if you're not a fan of her music, I highly recommend checking it out. It's a great in-depth look at her rise to fame and it's awesome to see the process of recording her debut album in her brother's bedroom. But come April of this year the rollout process began. 

Billie in a promotional image for this album

The first obvious change was, of course, her hair color but a lot of this album's artwork and promotional materials were a lot brighter and sometimes colorful than everything that came out during the When We All Fall Asleep era. Also, the reason I point this out is that I can't not share the story of how in anticipation of this album cycle, Billie went through a long process of turning her hair from black to the blonde we see now, a process that wasn't complete when she was nominated and had to perform at the 2021 Grammy Awards. Her solution? Well, she did what any logical person would do...she bought a Billie Eilish Halloween Costume off of Amazon. That's beside the point though, this album was indeed 16 songs long, and, just like her debut album, these 16 songs were the only songs they worked on for this album. Also, like her debut album, this album covers a lot of musical bases again but you could've probably guessed that from the singles anyways. The song NDA, a song that is equal parts dark pop, industrial rock, and dance music, being released after Your Power, an acoustic guitar ballad about abusing a position of power, should've told you all you needed to know. So, a bit of time removed from the album, what do I think of it? Do I think it's better than WWAFA? Do I think it's as boundary-pushing or daring? Do I think Billie and Finneas outdid themselves here? Well, no. 

And that's not an insult to this album or me saying, "Billie is washed! One hit wonder FLUKE!" I just think that this album and her debut have different strengths and weaknesses. Once again, I think the production and lyricism of this album are fantastic, Billie and Finneas together are probably gonna be an unstoppable duo for a long time. But my main issue with this album is the tracklist. At 16 songs and nearly an hour long, there are a few songs here that don't really land as hard as they could've. Take, for example, Billie Bossa Nova, a song that I was interested to hear just given the title, and I do for the most part like it, but there's nothing here that really makes me love this song. Sure, that "I'm not sentimental but there's somethin' 'bout the way you look tonight" hook is nice but instrumentally, there's nothing here that's interesting enough to keep the song's pulse beating for its runtime. There's also the song OverHeated which I think has one of the most cutting bridges lyrically with Billie taking aim at people who tried to criticize and shame her body when she posed in her cover shoot for Vogue but I think this song takes way too long to get interesting as the first and second verses are kinda just...there? 

However, neither of these are as big of a mood killer as Not My Responsibility which no, it's not bad. Billie's spoken-word piece is actually pretty smart and thoughtful but to throw this in the middle of a tracklist that's already sort of losing steam wasn't really the smartest decision. The run of Not My Responsibility, OverHeated, and Everybody Dies really just deflates the album in my opinion. I could probably spend another paragraph just talking about Everybody Dies in general but I think I've said enough negative things in this review already, just know that it's possibly the worst song on this album, and given its title, it's just about as edgy as an Imagine Dragons song. 

But like I said, I've said enough negative about this album already to the point where I feel like I've lost a few of y'all thinking that I hate this album and that Billie is, indeed, a flop. In reality, I still like a good chunk of this album. Starting with the opening song Getting Older which, for an opening song, is pretty sad. Billie is just so vulnerable on the song to the point where she has to say "For anybody asking, I promise I'll be fine." I just want to reach through my phone and give her a hug after this. Each verse just hurts more and more, starting with an almost funny first verse with Billie saying that she has a lot to be grateful for but what she isn't grateful for is strangers crowding outside her house or following her around everywhere. The verse ends with a hilarious line with Billie saying, "Which is ironic 'cause the strangers seem to want me more / Than anyone before / Too bad they're usually deranged." But after this, she goes on to sing about how she notices she craves pity when telling stories and thinks she's not great at healing. There's also the chorus where she sings about how things she used to love and enjoy "just keep me employed now." 

The first half of the record keeps the hits coming too. I really like the song I Didn't Change My Number, the beat is funky, the hook is catchy, and I love the synths all throughout the song as well. The lyrics are a bit tongue in cheek too with Billie talking about cutting herself off from this person by just ghosting them. She also name-drops a couple people on the song both her personal assistant Laura Ramsay and childhood friend Drew who are both on her side telling her this relationship needs to end. And while not as iconic as the sound of Billie taking out her Invisalign, her dog barking at the beginning is another show of just how comfortable her and Finneas are recording at their home together. The crown jewel of the first half of the album, however, is the song Oxytocin. I don't know if I can say it any other way but this song absolutely slaps. The production is insane, Billie is belting like she's never done before, and this song is just sinister. On my first listen through this album, I didn't think anything else on the tracklist could beat this...then I listened to the title track.

Before I got the chance to listen to this album, I got a text from one of my best friends that simply said, "happier than ever is billie's best song," which was a very bold statement, especially to go into the album with that expectation that something is going to be the best thing she's ever done. When I first started listening to the song, I'll be honest, I didn't believe the hype. The song starts off slow with some acoustic guitar chords and Billie singing with a muffled effect on her voice. Her lyrics are solid though, saying that when she's away from this lover she's "happier than ever" and asking if he reads her interviews or skips her street. She also says that he usually does the opposite of what she advises him to do which makes her more afraid for him and makes her miserable. Right after the second chorus, the acoustic guitar is replaced by a palm-muted electric guitar and the tempo of the song picks up as Billie gets angrier and angrier on the song. She sings:

You call me again, drunk in your Benz
Driving home under the influence
You scared me to death but I'm wasting my breath
'Cause you only listen to your f*cking friends
I don't relate to you
I don't relate to you, no
'Cause I'd never treat me this sh*tty
You made me hate this city

Then the song makes another transition and all of a sudden, I came to the same realization as my friend. If this isn't her best song, it's arguably a top 5 song she's ever released. Everything on this song from there on out is perfect. The song explodes like a mushroom cloud with a huge crash of cymbals, a loud blast of electric guitar, and bass boosted up to 11. The song starts having flavors of My Chemical Romance or something else in the rock opera genre, it almost reminds me of. There's also this level of distortion over the top which also gives the song a really cool sound. Oh, and Billie is just unloading on this dude during the outro. Whether she's just blatantly saying "I don't talk sh*t about you on the internet" to start the verse or probably the most cutting line on the entire album "I could talk about every time that you showed up on time / But I'd have an empty line 'cause you never did." She ends the song with a looooooong note while Finneas rips a little solo and the song ends going through what I think is a bitcrusher (if someone knows more about plug-ins than me, please correct me.)

Another promotional image of Billie for the new album

Again, do I think this album is nearly as boundary-pushing and exciting as her debut album was? No, but if I'm being completely honest, I don't think there was really anything that would've topped that for me. I do have to point out a comparison that I read in another review of this album that essentially compared her to the legendary Fiona Apple saying that if her debut is her Tidal, then this is definitely her When The Pawn. Essentially, her debut was such an incredible introduction to the music world which allowed her to take a few more risks and get a little bolder on this album, but the main thing that came out of this album that makes the comparison work is maturity. I'm sure Billie could've written about guys doing her wrong for her whole life if she wanted to but she writes a lot more introspective this time around and doesn't really hold back when it comes to her trauma, her abuse, and speaking out on how she's been treated before. And so we're clear, just because I don't think this album is better than her debut doesn't mean I hate it. I think the middle of the album gets a little tedious but it's still a solid body of work and I can't wait to hear most of these songs live at ACL Fest this October. 

I would rate
Happier Than Ever
By Billie Eilish


Links to stream the album are embedded below, physical copies of the album are also available at several retailers including exclusive vinyl variants at Target, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, and your local independent record store. Billie embarks on the Happier Than Ever  Tour next Spring, tickets for all shows are on sale NOW!

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