On her second album, Billie Eilish sings with unsparing honesty about her rapid ascent to stardom and all its accompanying horrors. It’s woozy, effortlessly melodic, and showcases her command over the pop landscape.
In March of 2020, Billie Eilish began incorporating a short film titled “Not My Responsibility” into her concerts. The shadowy four-minute clip shows Eilish slowly taking off her clothing and submerging into a slick pool of black goop, soundtracked by a spoken-word monologue about the body-shaming she faced as the most visible teenage girl on the planet. Since the release of her offbeat, gothy, Grammy-sweeping debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? one year prior, Eilish had become the media’s new favorite specimen to dissect. Specifically, her body, which Eilish often concealed beneath loud, oversized outfits. Some members of the peanut gallery applauded what they saw as a feminist refusal to be sexualized, a “body positivity” narrative that often bordered on slut-shaming women who choose to dress differently. All Eilish could do was try her best not to let it get to her. “So while I feel your stares, your disapproval or your sigh of relief,” she murmurs on “Not My Responsibility,” “If I lived by them, I’d never be able to move.”
The clip was an imperial mic drop. Unfortunately, “Not My Responsibility” played at only three concerts before the coronavirus outbreak canceled her tour and sent Eilish back home to Los Angeles. Eilish and Finneas—her brother, producer, and co-writer—hadn’t planned to make a record during quarantine. But their mother encouraged them to establish a casual writing routine at Finneas’ home studio—a nice upgrade from their previous workspace, Finneas’ childhood bedroom—and the songs that form Eilish’s second album, Happier Than Ever, naturally started taking shape.
The tears that dampen Eilish’s cheeks on the cover suggest that the album’s title is more a dream than a reality. On Happier Than Ever, the newly bleached-blonde 19-year-old sifts through the rubble of an ascent so life-altering and littered with landmines that her teenage idol, Justin Bieber, once broke down crying with worry for her. From the jump, there’s a palpable sense of longing for simpler times. “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now,” she wearily croons on the album opener “Getting Older.”
The reality of a pop star is so inherently surreal that it often borders on fantasy, but Eilish’s music has never worn tiny, rose-tinted sunglasses: Her debut’s frank exploration of mental health, addiction, and self-harm had concerned parents wringing their hands while their children rejoiced at a pop star being weird and depressed just like them. Happier Than Ever is full of admissions, plainly sung, with very little left between the lines. The things Eilish knows now are stalkers roaming her neighborhood, lovers who need to sign nondisclosure agreements, and strangers poring over paparazzi shots of her body. She doesn’t pretend that these problems are relatable, but she does know that they are just more extreme versions of concerns that plague people young and old: anxiety about how people perceive you, a desire to leave your current life behind, a fear that nothing will ever be normal again.
Instead of chasing the nightmarish pop of its predecessor, Happier Than Ever retreats into a softer sound where the flashes of weirdness are subtle but inventive. There’s a lot less trap and a lot more jazz (in one interview, Eilish name-dropped torch-singers like Julie London, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee). On the more subdued moments, Eilish’s soprano, so often overshadowed by low-end distortion, is allowed to breathe. “My Future” luxuriates in a soft silkiness before injecting an optimistic spring into its step. The piano-driven ballad “Halley’s Comet” likens Eilish’s caution about falling in love to the cosmic phenomenon, which notably comes around twice in a lifetime. Much to Finneas’ credit, the atmosphere of these tracks is quietly vast and full of carefully placed flourishes.
Some of Happier Than Ever’s quieter tracks drag—“Everybody Dies”’s dreary grasps at existentialism barely leave an impression. That said, as the beat change on “My Future” shows, Happier Than Ever’s best songs are the ones where Eilish and Finneas allow one small idea to mutate into two or three bigger ones. The loss-of-innocence anthem “Goldwing” begins with Eilish performing a section of composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral translation of the Rig Veda, a canonical Hindu text, and ends as glitchy thumper. A more obvious hit will inevitably be “Oxytocin,” which places Eilish’s famous breathy whispers deep inside the walls of a dark, steamy club. The track starts off sultry, all body rolls, before it turns on a dime and launches itself out a window in a blitz of abrasive synths à la Crystal Castles or early Grimes. The title track, another clear highlight, escalates from a dainty and detached critique of an ex to an eruption of hellfire. “I don’t relate to you, no/’Cause I’d never treat me this shitty,” Eilish roars, multi-tracked over a barrage of blown-out guitars so you know she means it. The barbs grow sharper and sharper—the dude ignored her mom!—until she finally screams, “Just fucking leave me alone.”
Midway through the album, “Not My Responsibility” reappears as a spoken word interlude. The statement packs a smaller punch without the visual accompaniment but sets the tone for the record’s latter half, which directly deals with sex, control, and voyeurism. “OverHeated”—ironically one of the album’s more undercooked songs—expands on “Not My Responsibility”’s woozy ambience and builds it into a thick beat that calls out the paparazzi and social media commentators who objectify her: “Did you really think this is the right thing to do?/Is it news, news to who?/That I really look just like the rest of you.” “Your Power” is more effectively disturbing, blurring the lines between Eilish’s own experiences with older men who exploit young women and those of others. “She was sleeping in your clothes/But now she’s got to get to class…” she murmurs over an acoustic guitar. “…Does it keep you in control/For you to keep her in a cage?” While Eilish’s first album was full of overtly scary thoughts—stapled tongues, monsters under beds, teen suicide—the reality presented on “Your Power” is profoundly more haunting.
The emotional manipulation at the heart of “Your Power” makes Eilish’s choices a few songs later all the more rewarding. On the acoustic guitar closer, “Male Fantasy,” Eilish watches porn to try to distract herself from a breakup only to be confronted with a warped depiction of female pleasure. Bummed out but not defeated, she lets her mind wander until she reaches the wise conclusion: Very little in this world is as cut and dry as it might seem, even her feelings of heartache. Perhaps because so much of the album is bedeviled by forces beyond her control, the best points on Happier Than Ever are the ones like this, where Eilish asserts her agency and self-worth. “I didn’t change my number, I only changed who I believe in,” she saucily dishes early on in the album, a line that should spark a round of applause. “Know I’m supposed to be with someone,” she sings more pensively on “My Future.” “But aren’t I someone?”
Recall, for a minute, the 2020 Grammy Awards. Just before the Album of the Year award was announced, a flustered Eilish—who already had won an armful of statues that evening—mouthed the words, “Please don’t be me.” It was all so much, so fast; she wouldn’t mind one moment out of the spotlight. Happier Than Ever climbs down from the gilded world of fame to offer a candid report from the coming-of-age trenches, where the past is embarrassing, the future feels excruciatingly distant, and the present is simply exhausting. Eilish doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out.
Buy: Rough Trade