One of the most fascinating things about Billie Eilish is that it’s so hard to tell when she’s kidding around and when she’s not. In her public appearances and interviews she has a deadpan demeanor that seems to mock everyone and everything around her—and yet she’s come out with sincere pronouncements on multiple issues, and her Vogue cover seemed anything but self-mocking, in fact it seemed like a very sincere expression of self-love (which only the most judgmental people could begrudge her for). Her debut album had an ingeniously deadpan single to match her public persona in “bad guy,” but it also contained serious dives into depression and a morbid teenager’s obsession with death.
But was her Vogue cover a joke at the expense of all the critics who mocked the baggy and unfeminine clothing she tended to favor? And were those songs about death on her debut album, like “bury a friend,” actually the funniest ones on there, with lines so provocatively grotesque they can’t help but induce laughter (e.g. “Step on the glass, staple your tongue”)?
Things are never so simple in her world, and it’s in trying to find the thin dividing line between joke and seriousness that we have all become so absorbed in the media persona called Billie Eilish. And really it’s the same thing that draws us to her music, in the millions. We seek insight into her curious personality there, some clues as to who the real Billie Eilish is.
But what we all found on the debut album was a hall of mirrors, a canny deconstruction of her personality shone through the obscuring prism of her brother Finneas’ minimalist production and her own canny wordplay and whispered vocals. Trying to shine a light into its midst, via repeated listening, to discover who she really was just seemed to reveal deeper and more obscure depths to her mystery. And this gave the music bottomless fascination.
Now Happier Than Ever has arrived, with a typically deadpan joke in its title promising more of the same ironic humor and irreverence. But when the album’s cover was revealed it showed the newly blonde Billie dressed in soft white fabric against a light, almost angelic background. The imagery contrasted so heavily with the previous album’s cover that it seemed to promise more transparency and earnestness to the album’s contents. Perhaps we would finally discover who the real Billie Eilish was, it tantalizingly hinted.
Of course, that was never going to happen. We can’t learn everything about a human being from a one-hour album, no matter how much artists might insist that you can in their publicity. And we certainly can’t learn everything about a pop star who’s become an expert manipulator of how she’s perceived in the media just as much as in her music.
But Happier Than Ever does indeed reveal itself to be more nakedly autobiographical than the last album. There is a marked focus on how success and fame has affected her life since her breakout in 2019, and of how difficult it is to live a private life when you’re in the public eye.
I can already hear your eyes rolling, and yes, that is a very well-worn theme for successful artists on their follow-up albums to smash hits. From Kurt Cobain to Michael Jackson, we’ve heard it all before.
Except we haven’t. Billie Eilish is such a sharp writer that she actually sheds new light on the privileged position of mega-celebrity that she occupies. And because good writing is good writing, no matter what the subject, you can learn things too by close listening. It really is interesting to hear about how being famous might change a teenager’s love life, for instance, as on “Happier Than Ever” where she wonders if an ex still reads her interviews or on “NDA” where she slaps a pretty boy with an NDA on his way out of the door. More poignantly, on “Halley’s Comet” she apologises to a lover about how she comes around less often than that astronomical feature because, as she concisely explains, “Midnight for me is 3 a.m. for you.”
She’s grounded enough to realise that fame doesn’t rescue her from certain human limitations, which is also very endearing. Or even more than endearing: “Getting Older” is one of the great songs about ageing, which is quite extraordinary coming from a 19 year-old. Over a sparse but moving synth backdrop, Billie drops piercing insight after piercing insight, with a chorus that goes “Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now” that is obviously about her songwriting and performing, but could just as easily be about any passion in a person’s life that grows stale from the necessity of being deployed in the name of financial pursuit. She follows it up with “Things I’m longing for/Someday I’ll be bored of,” which is a much smarter and more relatable line about ageing than The Who managed with their “Hope I die before I get old;” again, extraordinary coming from a teenager.
So we do get plenty of insight into Billie Eilish, as well as surprisingly into ourselves, with Happier Than Ever. It’s lyrically worth all the attention you can put into it; I haven’t even mentioned yet the one about a sexual predator (“Your Power”) or the one about men watching porn (“Male Fantasy”), or the many other goodies you can discover for yourself.
But musically, there’s a little disappointment for those of us who love being thrown curveballs by her songs. There are minor surprises everywhere, courtesy of Finneas no doubt, such as the dubstep-like electronic distortions at the end of “I Didn’t Change My Number” or the way the title track lurches into an electric guitar-driven power ballad in its second half. But generally, the pace is consistently slow, and tonally it’s about 90% comprised of a lounge jazz session that’s broad enough to include bossa nova and acapella sections, but limited enough that you could put the album on in the background and rarely be shocked into noticing it was there.
Furthermore, for those of us who love trying to work out whether she’s joking or not, the album makes it unfortunately too blatant in its musical signifiers. The songs that are piano or acoustic guitar-based, such as “my future” and “Halley’s Comet,” are the ones where she’s Being Serious, whilst the ones with harder and more pronounced electronic beats, such as “Oxytocin” and “Therefore I Am,” are the ones where she’s Being Playful.
It’s hard not to wish that Billie and Finneas (a great sister-brother partnership regardless) would sometimes switch things up. How much more startling it would be to hear Billie deploying her ironic laughs and goofing around on a slow piano-based ballad, or laying down her hardest home truths and bitterest personal confessions over a beat-heavy party song.
But then again it’s easy to forget that she’s still just a teenager, with plenty of time ahead to learn such tricks. And the fact that it’s so easy to forget her age whilst listening to and considering and writing about her music is evidence of just how unique and promising a talent she remains. Donny Osmond she ain’t.