Billie Eilish’s ‘Happier Than Ever’ is here — album stream & first-impressions review
Billie Eilish's rise to superstardom has been truly momentous. With just one album, she topped the charts in 10 countries, cracked over 20 major publications' year-end lists, went from clubs to arenas, had an acclaimed documentary made about her, earned a Guinness World Record, and won all four major Grammy categories at once (marking the first time anyone had done that since 1981), just to name a few of her accolades. 2019's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is the most universally loved debut album in a very long time, and making all of this even more impressive is that Billie Eilish never catered to the mainstream. She had a few recent indie-friendly pop precedents like Lana Del Rey and Lorde, and slightly less recent ones like Lily Allen, but she really proved to have her own sound, and it's uncompromising. The love that When We All Fall Asleep has gotten has made the expectations for its followup Happier Than Ever unrealistically high; it's probably destined to be viewed as a sophomore slump, the same way Room On Fire, Neon Bible, and It Was Written just had no chance of living up to their predecessors in the eyes of the public. And I know I just met this album, and this is crazy, but it is with no hesitation or exaggeration that I say I think it's even better than her debut.
Once again, Billie Eilish is refusing to cater to the mainstream, and working entirely on her own terms. It's not until the explosive rock coda of the album's second to last song that Happier Than Ever sounds remotely like a typical record label executive's definition of "mainstream music." She's not seeking the help of a hitmaker like Max Martin, or even Jack Antonoff. As on her debut, she made every song with her brother Finneas, whose main claim to fame is working with Billie Eilish. Five of the 16 songs had already been released as singles, and if you heard those, you probably have a good idea of what to expect. Happier Than Ever varies between a few different styles (Billie Holiday-style vocal jazz dirges, trancelike electronic pop, bossa nova, melodic hip hop, acoustic folk), and it's all done in Billie's dark, minimal, unmistakable style. The lyrics also feel wiser than they did just two years ago, taking on social/political issues, and mortality, and doing a ton of self-reflection, like when she questions if music is even the right career for her in "NDA" or when she drops this jaded bomb in the chorus of album opener "Getting Older": "Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now." (Billie is not yet 20.) Even the album title is kind of a red herring. The full lyric surrounding the title is "When I'm away from you, I'm happier than ever/Wish I could explain it better, I wish it wasn't true."
Billie may be questioning if the fame is all worth it, but she doesn't seem to be questioning her abilities as a songwriter, and she shouldn't be. Throughout her recent documentary, we saw her doubting her own music at every turn, but she's expressed in interviews that the music came to her more easily this time around, and you can hear it. These songs feel like the result of a very natural creative spark, and they go down easy. I can't spot any noticeable filler on the album, and some of the songs already rival the highest highs of her debut. It's rare that the most famous musicians are also the ones taking the most risks and writing some of the best music around, but Billie Eilish is one of those musicians.
Happier Than Ever is out now on Darkroom/Interscope. Stream it and watch a few videos below. Pick it up on double vinyl here.