Pop

Billie Eilish Proves All She Needs Is Herself On The Stunning Left Turn, ‘Happier Than Ever’

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When it comes to legendary musicians, critics love to talk about their phases. Massive discographies get split up over time, cataloged into sections that are defined by sound, style, and era, each segment parceled out neatly for listeners to engage with. And though it’s only her second album, on Happier Than Ever, Billie Eilish has already ushered in a completely new phase — one that manages to sound absolutely pitch-perfect without negating her prior work. Shifting away from the eerie trap beats and ASMR pop that completely defined When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, this rising star cemented herself as the important element, everything else can be swapped out with apparent ease. Billie remains.

Happier Than Ever is a jazzy, sometimes too-slow, incredibly self-serious project, one that repurposes her righteous viral monologues and Hindu poems with equal dexterity, Finneas’ golden touch mitigating the potential clunkiness of either. It’s hard to imagine another teenage pop star releasing a record that cites influences like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee as major touchstones, let alone turning a slew of songs with the sonic palette of a jazz standards songbook into a commercially successful pop project, but she’s done just that. As different as her new blonde hair and doe-eyed promo photos are from her previous green locks and blank stares, the songs on this second album delve into sex, physical intimacy, trauma, lust, and abandonment in a way that’s leaps and bounds beyond the lyrics on her debut. It’s only been two years, but in Billie’s world, everything has changed.

And even if her personal life did drastically shift with the increased fame brought on by her first record and its record-breaking critical acclaim — the pressure of the spotlight is usually mentioned second-hand here, as an interruption of or hindrance to her relationships. Happier Than Ever gets into sex and physical intimacy right off the bat, with the slinky “Billie Bossa Nova” giving us “Girl From Ipanema” for the iPhone era. On an even more explicit standout, the insatiable “Oxytocin,” Billie imagines God watching her and a hookup do “bad things,” while other tracks like “OverHeated” and “Halley’s Comet” get at long-distance relationships, desirability, and body image in more roundabout ways.

Since fans have already heard a good portion of singles off the record — “Therefore I Am,” “My Future,” “Your Power,” “Lost Cause,” and “NDA” just a few days ago — it wouldn’t be surprising if the rest of the album paled in comparison to these predecessors. But that isn’t the case at all. Those songs are strong, but other more reflective tracks like album opener “Getting Older” and the title track examine complex feelings of mortality, freedom, and toxic relationships, “Everybody Dies” is akin to the Bond theme song Billie and Finneas released in 2019, “No Time To Die,” reflecting on loneliness that bleeds into existential themes.

Disappointment with men and relationships is a common thread throughout the album, with album closer “Male Fantasy” in particular skewering the still-prevalent double standards that impact young women, even if they’re as powerful as Billie Eilish. But Billie is at her best when she’s focusing on herself, and her behavior, instead of the unsurprising reality that men can’t live up to her standards. This perspective shift is clear in the album’s title, too, which seemed to sardonically hint at life after her debut album’s success, but is actually about feeling better now that a certain someone is no longer in her life. Not quite a breakup album, Happier manages to touch on all kinds of relational themes, as the swaggering “Therefore I Am” alluded to all the way back in fall of 2019. The bulk of these songs aren’t sad, or mad, but disappointed, and refocused on loving and understanding herself.

And even with the album’s heavy jazz and piano, little flourishes of percussion and fuzz keep the record from feeling sleepy or retro, another indication that Finneas might be the next super producer of our time. Take the massive Yeezus crescendo on “NDA,” or even the disco-funk embedded in the middle of “My Future” as proof that he can still insert subtle flexes, even within super-specific boundaries. Billie’s vocals, too, are feathery and treated with the same jaw-dropping precision that made her debut stand out so quickly. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to take her lyrics to heart — the vocals are always the most important element in the mix. Even so, it’s likely that her palette for this album will be just that, a single project sound that’s quickly replaced for her next release. But if she moves as smoothly and assuredly into the next era, it won’t matter if it’s metal, musical theater, or even country. Because it will still be Billie. Clearly, all she needs is herself.

Happier Than Ever is out now via Darkroom Records/Interscope. Get it here.

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