Books & Culture

Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever, but also Sad

Some albums need to be lived with for a while. Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever doesn’t really wow in the first listening. The music is less powerful than her wildly successful debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? but sometimes music that doesn’t quite awe you in the first listen turns out to be the music you can live with. Eilish’s Happier Than Ever may not be particularly happy, but its music can be played while brewing a cup of coffee or while sipping the result. It’s sweeping-the-house music, and that’s not a bad thing. Happier Than Ever makes me think of all the pieces of art that we consider iconic today that may not have impressed their viewers at the opening show. Meaning sometimes deepens with time, and the things that embrace the zeitgeist often fade into obscurity, while the stranger things linger. I’d put my bets on Eilish’s stranger things.

In When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, Eilish created a voice so original and a sound so forceful, you couldn’t help but sit up and listen. Happier Than Ever is more of a lullaby, music you can safely play in the background. It lends itself well to a physical record, one you put on the turn table and leave until the needle pops free.

Eilish takes on the traumas and difficulties fame, celebrity, and success, but I feel that her attention to these themes weakens the album. We’ve heard these ideas before, elsewhere.

Yet, it’s not shocking that Eilish would tackle the challenges of fame and success in her music given the confessional nature of her work, but there’s always the risk of losing your audience. How many people can “buy a secret house” when they’re 17.

What made Eilish’s work so powerful in her first album was its bold, brazen, and straightforward relatability. Anyone who has ever been an angry teenager, or a sad teenager, or a lonely one, or a confused one could relate to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? but the subject matter of Happier Than Ever is a tougher sell. We’re in Britney Spears’ “Lucky” territory, and I hope our culture doesn’t repeat its sins.

And yet, fame or no fame, who hasn’t dreamed “about a new career / somewhere in Kauai where I can disappear”? Is it just me, or do most people not realize how small the islands of Hawai’i are, and that Kauai is one of the smallest? It’s impossible to be anonymous in Hawai’i, even if you’re not famous. But I digress.

Fans of Eilish will perhaps initially gravitate toward the song “Therefore I Am” which is most reminiscent of the work on her debut album. It’s good. Really good. I can see the temptation to fill another album with 12 to 13 hits just like it.The fans would be pleased, and likely the critics too.

But Eilish doesn’t do this, and this decision makes me respect her artistic integrity all the more.

Any artist worth their salt will tell you that they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives singing their greatest hits, or trying to replicate them. It’s why I distrust artists like Jeff Koons, who strike a formula that works and then never change it. Yes, a stainless steel balloon dog is beautiful, but when you’ve iterated through every balloon animal at the party, what remains but lobby art and a sound investment?

Andy's Ear. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Andy’s Ear. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Eilish isn’t content giving us another version of Where We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go. She’s not trying to please the investors, and not necessarily trying to please us, either.

In Happier Than Ever, she takes the creative freedom she’s been given by her own success and does the brave thing. She experiments. She slows down the pace. She goes acoustic! In “Male Fantasy,” the stunning acoustic song that closes the album, we get the sound of Bon Iver, but subject matter that is anything but Iver. There’s a delightful tension between the dreamy acoustics, soothing vocals, and the lyrics that admit to distracting oneself with pornography and a return to therapy.

If Happier Than Ever is the golden ticket any artist wishes she could have, a free pass to make the music you want with the knowledge that the momentum of your fame will carry you through, then I think Eilish used it well. Here’s the artist at her studio, revealing new directions and possibilities, while revisiting old successes. Here she is whispering, speaking, and sometimes shouting into the microphone. In one song, she throws back to the 50s. In another she throws back to herself.

Some might be inclined to say Eilish changed. She’s blonde now. She posed for Vogue. She’s gone acoustic. I don’t think she’s changed at all. In Where We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, Eilish put her messiness on full view. In Happier Than Ever, we see the rough edges of her artistic process, and the head-spinning way that success can interrupt that process. Eilish isn’t giving us a polished version of her debut album, and for that I’m grateful.

I find Happier Than Ever irresistible. I want to put it on the turntable and listen to it again and again. I want to dance to it alone in my living room or while cooking breakfast. I want it to be the background to the party I might have had when I was younger and when people actually hung out in person. An impossible party, in the era of COVID and social media. In “NDA” Eilish sings about buying that house, but confesses that she hasn’t “had a party since I got the keys.”

If I could ever buy that house in Kauai, I don’t think I’d have a party either. But I’d probably dance to Happier Than Ever with my family in the living room.

Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish on vinyl at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.