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‘Happier Than Ever’ by Billie Eilish Review: Growing Ups and Downs


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The teenage pop sensation’s second album presents a matured take on the trials of stardom, but falters in its musical style.

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Billie Eilish in July

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify

Billie Eilish’s 2019 debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” was notable because of the singer’s age—she was 17 on its release date—and because of its massive streaming numbers and five Grammy wins. But it was also a mainstream smash of rare substance. Unlike so many teen-pop offerings from years past, it was formally daring. The combination of Ms. Eilish’s whispered vocals, delivered in clipped phrases that evinced her love of hip-hop, and the production by her musical partner and brother, Finneas—minimal yet forceful, often heavy on distorted bass—sounded like nothing else in the mainstream. Singing about adolescent woes with sly humor streaked with the macabre, Ms. Eilish appealed to preteens but also drew praise from rock elders such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.

An eventful two years later—during which Ms. Eilish sang a James Bond theme (“No Time to Die”); became the subject of an intimate promotional documentary (“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”); and endured the downsides of being a star, including tabloid and social media scrutiny of her appearance and her dating life—she returns with her second LP, “Happier Than Ever” (Darkroom/Interscope), out now. 

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Photo: Darkroom/Interscope Records/Associated Press

Given her music’s obsession with dark thoughts and her own stated struggle with depression, the title is at least partly ironic. Her styling for this album cycle finds Ms. Eilish morphing from a brooding teen with two-tone hair and baggy outfits into a sparkling vision of midcentury glamour. (She’s said that she chose loose-fitting clothes to avoid drawing attention to her body, and the first glimpse of her new look on the cover of Vogue, where she appeared clad in lingerie, led to a predictable firestorm on social media.) “For this one, I wanted the theme of old Hollywood and beautiful and classy,” she told NPR in a recent interview. 

The throwback style found on the record’s cover is present in a significant portion of the songs, on which the rhythmic propulsion of rap and dance music central to her debut is traded for jazz-inflected torch songs. Her first LP came across like the unusually articulate and often funny scribblings from a teenager’s notebook that conveyed the wonder, confusion and general angst that comes from living through that age. “Happier Than Ever” presents a more mature version of Bllie Eilish—it’s admirably riskier in some respects but with nowhere near the cumulative force of its predecessor. 

The opening “Getting Older” introduces us to the album’s mellower sound and a new set of concerns. In the broadest sense, “Happier Than Ever” is the post-fame album, where a young performer who has made it big discovers that stardom comes with a punishing downside. “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now,” she sings in the first song’s chorus, over an arrangement so quiet it’s barely audible, while on “Goldwing” she laments those who “claim you like a souvenir / Just to sell you in a year.” 

The record’s biggest weakness, which is there from the first track, is its preponderance of ultra-sparse, wispy ballads that are only occasionally leavened with rhythm. “Billie Bossa Nova,” an airy number about secret desire, hints at the low-key syncopated groove of the titular Brazilian genre but the melodic construction is too simple to stick. “My Future” has a clever lyrical conceit—the singer achieves self-esteem by falling in love with the person she will become—but the slight accompaniment of electric piano and a basic drum loop renders the sentiment drowsy and indistinct. 

These numbers are so somnambulant that the few tracks that hearken back to her debut are like seeing an old friend walk through the door. “Oxytocin,” a snapping, propulsive tune exploring the connection between lust and brain chemistry, with a haunting and beguiling chorus that finds Ms. Eilish jumping up an octave, provides a welcome jolt. Later, “NDA” skips along on the thrum of a distorted bassline, playfully casting aside romantic dead weight (“Had a pretty boy over, but he couldn’t stay / On his way out, made him sign an NDA”) while again lamenting the isolation that comes with celebrity (“I can barely go outside, I think I hate it here / Maybe I should think about a new career”). Her hushed voice and muted phrasing need the contrast these grittier and noisier tracks provide. 

The most intriguing songs are the ones that stray furthest from the jazzy conception. “Not My Responsibility” is a haunting spoken-word piece delivered over an ominous drone, wherein Ms. Eilish calls out those who judge her body and her art in a creepy tone that makes the listener feel like a voyeur. While her perspective as a famous pop star is unique, the mix of strength and vulnerability in her performance universalizes her message. The following “Overheated” takes sonic and thematic elements of “Not My Responsibility” and arranges them into a more conventional song to slightly lesser but still stirring effect. And, late in the album, the title track opens with a gently strummed acoustic guitar and transforms into a loud alternative rock banger complete with a wall of snarling guitars, with Ms. Eilish ably shifting vocal gears to suit the energy. 

These welcome curveballs show that Ms. Eilish and her brother have plenty of ideas to build out for future albums, but they’re not quite enough to rescue this one. “Happier Than Ever” has a handful of exceptional tracks that remind you of how fresh her audaciously spare music seemed when she first arrived on the scene, but too many others so stripped back that “minimal” tips into boring.

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