REVIEW: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever
Updated: Feb 6, 2022
Favorite Track: "Happier Than Ever" Least Favorite Track: "NDA"
The path to stardom is not always as glorious as the music industry and popular culture perceives; in fact, it is often quite the opposite. Whether it is tremendous or miniscule, every mainstream and underground artist has faced some sort of obstacle that has hindered their journey through music. This can include physical obstacles, such as pianists Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Art Tatum being legally blind, classical pianist Ludwig Van Beethoven losing his hearing, or drummer Rick Allen losing an arm. For many, it had to do with race. Artists like Nina Simone, Bill Withers, Prince, and Hazel Scott broke down tremendous racial barriers, and emerged as pioneering black musicians who went on to become legends in their respective genres. Sexuality proved to be quite the obstacle for many artists. The music industry seemed to originally deem LGBTQ+ artists Freddie Mercury, Frank Ocean, and Janelle Monae unsuited for fame, solely based on their sexual preferences. Moreover, gender was and still is another problem, and artists like Joan Jett, Ella Fitzgerald, and MC Lyte had a rough time finding acceptance within their niches.
Music continues to be a challenging career for artists today, especially for those who don’t fit into the utterly discriminatory and uber specific popstar image. The unhealthy fixation that the media has on the beauty and body type that artists like Britney Spears, Beyonce, and Ariana Grande share has in turn aided in the body-shaming and slut-shaming of artists like Lizzo, Adele, Megan Thee Stallion, and of course, Billie Eilish. As one of the biggest artists in the industry today, she has endured the disgusting dissection by the media and music industry, who seem to specifically obsess over her body. The incredibly cultivated and gothy When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? exposed her artistry and genius to the world, and at the same time, introduced a “body positivity” narrative that does more harm than good in relation to Eilish and the baggy clothes she chooses to wear. The things she discussed on the album, including mental health, addiction, and self-harm are all things that would become more apparent after the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage the world and reaffirm that trauma. This includes Billie Eilish, who was stuck inside after the media and concerned parents ripped her for a nightmarish pop album that throws a middle finger to all those who judge her. Luckily, having a musically gifted sibling like Finneas O’Connell has its perks. He helped her take the things she is accustomed to now, and put them into a fresh project. 2021’s Happier Than Ever is an album that helps make the anxieties that plague your mind apparent, and how to cope with them.
The opener “Getting Older” is a very vulnerable introduction for Billie Eilish, but considering that the album is entitled Happier Than Ever, it fits quite well. A delicate, pizzicato synth beat lays down an atmospheric soundscape for her to discuss the things she is accustomed to in her life now, such as stalkers, paparazzi, insecurities, trauma, and ultimately, a growing sense of responsibility. “I've had some trauma, did things I didn't wanna/Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it's time” is a realization that the older she gets, the more she is going to have to confront all she has endured, rising above them to “keep myself together and prioritize my pleasure.” Later in the album, there is an absolutely beautiful spoken-word track “Not My Responsibility,” which she debuted in video form at a couple of pre-pandemic shows back at the beginning of 2020. Spacey synth chords play as we see Billie Eilish slowly stripping her clothes and stepping into a pool of black goo, vocalizing the body-shaming she has been put through. The objectification of women’s bodies has been a problem since the rise of social media and even before, but it is especially relevant here because of the attention that Eilish was given as a minor. “Would you like me to be smaller, weaker, softer, taller? Would you like me to be quiet? Do my shoulders provoke you? Does my chest? Am I my stomach? My hips? The body I was born with, Is it not what you wanted?” Billie Eilish really holds nothing back in this difficult and brave discussion, and this ode along with the rest of the tracks on Happier Than Ever signify that she is taking control of her own body; ultimately, it is a responsibility to herself.
Considering Finneas’s incredible mixing and production on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Happier Than Ever really stands out by nature of its simplicity. One or two ideas create the foundation of virtually every track, and from there, develop into more complex and interesting songs. The title track, for example, transcends from this dreary, acoustic hymn about an ex to an eruption of distortion and intensity, maintaining a steady climb in instrumentation, tone, and dynamics. Reverb, buzzing amps, and synths are really the first clue into the song's climactic destination, which is only increased when the guitar strumming shits into double time. “You call me again, drunk in your Benz/Driving home under the influence” keys into the unhealthy partner Billie Eilish is with. She then accentuates how fed up she is by stating “You scared me to death, but I’m wastin’ my breath/’Cause you only listen to your fuckin’ friends.” The third verse is where the track takes a big leap in climatic detail, with distorted guitars, bass, and drums helping Eilish croon how “all you did was make me fuckin’ sad” by “never paying mind to my mother or friends.” She sings one clever line that reads “I could talk about every time that you showed up on time/But I’d have an empty line ‘cause you never did,” further emphasizing how finished she really is. One would expect the track to cap out dynamically there, but the outro proves just how much more feeling she has stored up.
“Your Power” is one of the most beautiful songs across Happier Than Ever, capturing an acoustic quarantined setting perfectly. The chorus introduces the song with some beautiful high range vocals, singing “Try not to abuse your power,” a lyric that fixates on the many forms of abuse listeners could be affected by. She goes beyond that by being transparent about the abuse she has endured from her 22 year old ex boyfriend Brandon Adams, who dated and manipulated her at the young age of 16. “And you swear you didn’t know, no wonder why you didn’t ask/She was sleepin’ in your clothes, but now she’s got to get to class” paints an uncomfortable picture of pedophilia and exploitation, to which she asks “How dare you?/How could you?/Will you only feel bad when they find out?/If you could take it all back, would you?” All in all, it is fairly simple musically, but deep and complex lyrically. The closing track “Male Fantasy” has that same allure of simple complexity. Acoustic guitar, soft percussion, and warm synths set the perfect melancholy soundscape for Eilish to croon about a recent heartbreak, and how the male fantasy played a big role in it. Sadly, the media and popular culture has adopted a male fantasy complex, where most of the things we consume through entertainment are meant to appeal to straight white males. Eilish cleverly depicts that problem with the opening verse. “Home alone, tryin’ not to eat, distract myself with photography/I hate the way she looks at me/I can’t stand the dialogue, she would never be that satisfied, it’s a male fantasy” sees Eilish viewing pornography, one of the main contributions to male fantasy, and feeling disgusted at the sheer sight of a woman faking sexual pleasure to please someone undeserving.
Even though Happier Than Ever may be more contained and simple than When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, we still get tracks that are unapologetically angsty and ominous Billie Eilish masterpieces. “Oxytocin” has the same allure to it as “bad guy” or “you should see me in the crown” originally had. Aggressive drum beats, heavy bass, and edgy synthesizer tones create an incredible song for anyone to throw on as they scream and cry into their pillow. Moreover, she seems to do more with her voice, leaving behind the softer, lower range breathy tones and actually belting into her higher range at separate points in the track, upping the emotion and intensity that much more. The following track “Goldwing” begins with a gorgeous harmonized vocal rendition of composer Gustav Holst’s arrangement of the Hindu text Rig Veda, and solidifies that the term “vocalist” does fit Billie Eilish. The track takes a hard left turn into a glitchy, drum beat that repeats “Goldwing,” another testimony to how she allows one idea to seamlessly blossom into another. One of the hardest hitting tracks on Happier Than Ever is “Therefore I Am,” where the track’s tone matches Billie Eilish’s resentment for people who try to profit off of her just for being acquaintances. Distorted guitars and strings, heavy synth tones, groovy drum beats, and eerie horror harmonizations embody the same energy that “all the good girls go to hell” gives off, and creates another song to send the media and conservative parents into an uproar over.
Instrumentally, Happier Than Ever offers more than just the evil and mysterious Billie Eilish tracks we’ve all become accustomed to. In fact, this album sees her and Finneas experiment with different styles and genres of music that have all helped develop their musicality. “I Didn’t Change My Number” is one example. Beginning with some audio of dog snarls, courtesy of their Pitbull named Shark, this unmistakable 90’s hip-hop beat sets in, with dense wurlitzer chords, groovy basslines, and ?uestlove drum mannerisms. This is the kind of song you can’t help but bounce along with, incorporating beautiful vocal harmonies, synths, and distorted feedback that is expertly placed in the mix; ideas that Eillish obviously looked to R&B singers like Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child for. The following song changes the mood quite severely, with a bossa nova acoustic guitar pattern introducing “Billie Bossa Nova.” As expected, Eilish credits the influence behind this instrumental to the legendary Brazilian artist Antonio Carlos Jobim, a huge figure in the world of bossa nova and samba music, and who still holds one of the top latin jazz records of all time, Getz/Gilberto. As did Jobim, Eilish made this instrumental attainable to all listeners by keeping the guitar montuno relatively simple; not diminishing any musicality, but retaining a proper balance in relation to the rest of Happier Than Ever’s simplicity. Latin percussion elements are incorporated to continue the authenticity of bossa nova music, including a clave pattern, guiro, and an afuche. Those elements mixed with Billie Eilish characteristics like her melodies, harmonies, and pristine synth swells conceive a track that pays homage to the musical world that existed before her as well as gives Happier Than Ever more expression to appease to wider audience.
“Lost Cause” is without a doubt one of the strongest songs across the tracklist, and the instrumental is definitely a clue as to why. “Something’s in the-” is sung before an incredibly groovy R&B drum and bass groove locks in. Billie Eilish delivers a verse where the melody effortlessly skates across, and by the time the chorus arrives with the lyric “Thought you had your shit together, but damn, I was wrong,” you can’t help but headbang and sing along to the infectious song that is “Lost Cause.” Synths, harmonies, guitar, and claps are put through distortion, reverb, and delay, making it rather instrumentally dense considering the standard instrumentation doesn’t vary much from any other song on Happier Than Ever. Finally, we can’t ignore the pristine beauty that the previously released single “my future” brings. Eilish begins the tune in her classic melancholic tone, but changes it for a more optimistic one as the song progresses. The instrumental parallels this. After the first chorus, the drum kicks into a double time R&B/jazz snare, hi-hat, and kick drum beat, replicated by the guitar and bass. This is not only automatically pleasing to those with an affinity for grooves like this one, but also a key into the incredible composing and arranging that Billie and Finneas did on this album.
We all remember viewing the 2020 Grammy Award show and being utterly astounded with how Billie Eilish, Finneas O’Connell, and the rest of the When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? team sweeped virtually every award category. This kind of success and fame could easily go to your head, and set you on a greedy and fabricated music career. However, this wasn’t the case for the 19 year old pop star, who really kept Happier Than Ever about herself and her growth as a woman and an artist. Taking time away from the spotlight to focus on how the lessons she learned from the past can better prepare her for the future, and in turn, it gave us an astonishing album that offers so much to so many. With product like this, we hope Billie Eillish continues to prioritize her health and happiness over quantity and popularity, which can only confirm her incredible music career thus far.