When you’re 19, two years can feel like an eternity. Later, it can go by in a flash. Which is why, under more regular circumstances, many listeners might have been startled by Billie Eilish’s new album Happier Than Ever, which feels like a transformation compared to the jumpy and slinky playfulness of her massively successful, full-length debut, 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? But in the interim, humanity’s collective rhythm fell into a Covid-19-shaped wormhole, and two years ago now seems impossibly distant to even people decades Eilish’s senior. Many of us are feeling more subdued, shaken, and shorter on swagger, and with notable exceptions, that is how Eilish sounds here.
The title of Happier Than Ever is double-edged: If anyone was expecting a more upbeat, carefree record from the 21st-century pop goth known for her nightmare-channeling lyrics, this ain’t it. The vibe is slower and more somber than her defining hits. But the album does find a maturing artist working through her obstacles to find contentment, asserting her right to self-possession, in ways that make happiness more viable in the long run.
Where much of her debut saw Eilish knifing the nasties under the bed in the dark, as stand-ins for more substantial psychological demons, on her sophomore release, her main foils aren’t the Babadook—they’re stalkers, internet haters, lousy boyfriends, body shamers, power abusers, and other real-world bad guys. It’s hard not to long for the fanciful horror-movie world-building of the younger Eilish at first, which in 2019—supported by her sibling co-writer and producer Finneas’s way with eccentric sonic effects—felt like such an unpredictable, liberating new presence in mainstream pop. Paired with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” breakthrough the same year, Eilish seemed to be a harbinger of a further-out, cliché-crushing pop-generational turn.
But early celebrity is a powerful force, especially under the surveillance of social media. Eilish and Nas X (whose own debut full-length Montero is expected to appear anytime now) perhaps inevitably have now harnessed much of their energy to defending their psychic and personal integrity against the intense scrutiny they’ve experienced, which few people can even imagine. Eilish has pointed out in interviews that the flattery can often be as confusing and damaging as the criticism. Consider the way her penchant for baggy, form-camouflaging clothing was counterposed with the supposed sexual excesses of other female pop stars: It not only made her an unwilling party to slut-shaming, but implied she would be making a mistake if she ever dressed more revealingly. That’s part of why, in the runup to this release, Eilish swapped her trademark dyed-green hairstyle—which had become its own kind of identify-confining trap—for bombshell-blond, and had herself photographed in voluptuous lingerie for the cover of Vogue. Which, of course, brought another backlash.
There are lines peppered throughout Happier Than Ever that side-eye the internet peanut gallery’s presumption to know what’s actually going on in a life they only intuit through rumors, speculation, and ancient online breadcrumbs. But the focus on her body has clearly hit Eilish hardest. The album hinges around a mid-album, spoken-word monologue, “Not My Responsibility,” which she premiered during her short-lived world tour in 2020, with a short film of Eilish slowly removing clothing and then sinking into a pool of tar. “You have opinions about my opinions, about my music, about my clothes, about my body,” she intones. “But I feel you watching always.” That piece informs everything before and after it, such as “Halley’s Comet,” perhaps the album’s only real love song, a pretty piece about being tempted by passion but held back by risk, and “OverHeated,” a less musically interesting statement in defiance of a traumatic paparazzi incident. Eilish so far hasn’t gone through what someone like Britney Spears did, thanks to a trustworthy circle of family and well-vetted business associates, but even then she can come shockingly close.
A second album about the pressures of fame is an industry staple, and very often it marks the point when an artist loses the thread that bound them to an audience in the first place, only seeing the world through a scrim of travel and publicists. In the album’s charming opening salvo, “Getting Older,” I began to worry about that as Eilish sang in the chorus, “Things I once enjoyed/ Just keep me employed now.” I was reminded of the moment in The World’s a Little Blurry, the documentary from early this year, where Eilish told her family she never wanted to make another record. Still, at the end of this first song, she sets out another reason to carry on: “I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna/ Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time.”
And that is, in its best moments, what lifts Happier Than Ever beyond the second-album curse: It is grounded in a determination to testify that would have been beyond the Eilish of 2019, while still preserving enough privacy to demand her autonomy. It swirls together the fame album, a post-#MeToo feminist-protest album, the breakup album (the songs return enough to overlapping complaints about a relationship situation to recall her peer Olivia Rodrigo’s more single-minded debut Sour, from May), and just enough familiar Billie-and-Finneas sardonicism not to be an endless bummer.
It could have been shorter—a song like “Billie’s Bossa Nova,” about a fantasy clandestine hotel rendezvous, feels like a Finneas-led musical exercise, and “Everybody Dies” is a reach for a bigger idea, a return to some When We All Fall Asleep preoccupations, that is a welcome change of pace yet whose poignancy falls short of profundity. But the way that Eilish mixes themes from song to song and within songs manages to connect relative mundanity with her unusual life experiences as a very-young-adult celebrity: the public component of growing up today regardless of fame, when an Instagram post or an out-of-date tweet can rattle any young person’s reputation or become bullying bait. They may not have to cope with articles and interviews, which she mentions in several songs as things she both dislikes and wants her intimates to take note of, but ordinary people can feel similar things about their online interactions.
That complexity is combined with the musical switch she and Finneas have made. They do less of the second-hand, homespun-trap that distinguished When We All Fall Asleep and draw upon more jazzy torch-song textures that Eilish has credited to the influence of the 1950s-’60s singer Julie London. Often, as on the strummy title track or the floatingly ambient “My Future,” the songs begin with retro mellow and then switch to beats halfway through. In the case of “Happier Than Ever,” that escalates to the point of Eilish ultimately shouting, “Just fucking leave me alone”—which may be the unspoken subtext of every torch song ever.
So could the flipped version that emerges at the end of the closing track, “Male Fantasy,” when Eilish sings, “I know I should, but I could never hate you.” That song starts daringly with Eilish distracting herself in a down moment by watching porn and pondering how the male gaze shapes unrealistic portrayals of women’s satisfaction with sex—but by its conclusion, it’s about an equally distracting fantasy about a male, and how he might have been better to her.
The album’s most thematically encompassing and memorable track is probably the single “Your Power,” on which Finneas uses 1970s acoustic-singer-songwriter textures to couch gently some of Eilish’s most confrontational lyrics about male power abuse, touching briefly upon personal experience while weaving in stories she’s heard from or about others, to make a more universal point. Lyrics like “She was sleepin’ in your clothes/ But now she’s got to go to class” and “You swear you didn’t know/ You thought she was your age,” as well as the musical arrangement, are reminiscent of the impact of Phoebe Bridgers’ song about her brief relationship with Ryan Adams: “You said when you met me you were bored/ And you were in a band when I was born.”
There are a few tracks here that aim a bit more at being bops. Last summer’s sarcastic-yet-Socratic single “Therefore I Am,” the one with the great pandemic-minded video of Eilish scarfing snacks in an empty food court, is represented. So is the recent “NDA,” which winkingly hints at off-the-radar romances who have to sign non-disclosure agreements and recaps a bunch of the album’s other songs in its second verse. “I Didn’t Change My Number” is an anthem for fully-justified-ghosters everywhere, with some classic Finneas-and-Billie musical humor in the loops of menacing dog barks. And “Oxytocin” is “Bad Guy”-esque in its keyboard and vocal stylizations, but with a much more grown-up, eroticized groove and lyrics; Eilish presents herself simultaneously as the pursuer and the pursued in a fully consenting-aged pleasure pretzel, with a sensuality that is newer to her.
Happier Than Ever needs those sparkly moments to sustain fans through the balladry and hush, but it parses them out sparingly. And then there is the beginning of “Goldwing,” preluded by layered Eilish voices performing a verse from early-20th-century English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral transliteration of the Hindu Rig Veda, and ascending to a whole other Kate Bush-fusion-hemispheric level of transcendence—something I would never in a century have guessed she would include. It reminds me that as much as Billie Eilish’s second album matters— as a cultural phenomenon, a statement of Gen-Z womanhood, an intervention in pop music’s possible direction—both Billie and Finneas are artists who, as far as anyone can guess, could do practically anything in the future, compared to the short history we already know. Provided the future will let them.