“Sometimes it’s flattering when people copy you, but sometimes it gets to a breaking point,” a 15-year-old Billie Eilish told NME back in 2017, roughly a year after her first single ‘Ocean Eyes’ laid down the foundations for the life-altering, seismic levels of success that would follow.
Though she hadn’t yet released her debut ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ – a menacing tangle of eerie whispers and monstrously lurching melodies that would later redefine the sound of contemporary pop – those early comments feel prophetic with some hindsight. By the time Eilish swept the 2020 Grammys, she was a household name, and both sound and artistic persona became flattened down into a cartoonish image: garish green roots, sci-fi sunnies and big, baggy two-piece outfits. Some debated and dissected her motives with an unsettling interest, either scolding her for hiding her body or praising her for not flaunting it. Quite incredibly, paparazzi even began hiding out in bushes to sneak photographs of the ‘real’ Eilish outside her own home in her native Los Angeles.
Such immense levels of misogynistic scrutiny eventually led Eilish to deliver a powerful monologue at a show in Miami last spring; she called out the unacceptable expectations placed on women, and spoke about the weight of being watched constantly. “Nothing I do goes unseen,” she said over washes of Lynchian synthesizer crafted by her brother and key collaborator FINNEAS, who produced her debut and this follow-up. “So while I feel your stares, your disapproval or your sigh of relief, if I lived by them, I’d never be able to move.”
It seems fitting that this monologue – titled ‘Not My Responsibility’ – should also act as the centrepiece to Billie Eilish’s second album, a record that pulls apart and debunks the idea of a pop fairytale and its happily-ever-after. Instead, having shed her distinctive debut image and its emotional baggage, Eilish is content with being ‘Happier Than Ever’ – on the cover, she gazes wistfully into the distance, clutching at expensive white cashmere and gently weeping like a old-timey Hollywood star. Deliberately, she seems to be playing the part of a glamorous and unknowable actor, and musically, ‘Happier Than Ever’ pointedly draws on older classic sounds in order to explore the trappings of fame, the male gaze, and being haunted by your incomplete public image being projected around the world.
A slinking slow-burner with a clinking samba beat, ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ sounds like the sort of eerie easy-listening that might play out of a cafe speaker on Twin Peaks. “Some information’s not for sharing / Use different names at hotel check-ins,” she sings of her new, post-fame routine, “it’s hard to stop it once it starts”. On the yowling ‘NDA’, Eilish sings about the absurdity of having to issue post-hook-up non-disclosure agreements.
And just when it feels like you’ve got ‘Happier Than Ever’’s measure, it ducks off somewhere else – the ethereal ‘Goldwing’ opens with a segment of the sacred Hymn to Vena, while ‘Male Fantasy’ wittily picks apart the stilted dialogue and near-instant orgasms of a certain type of pornography. A pulsing ballad, ‘My Future’ is a slinking love song written to Eilish’s own assured future, while ‘Everybody Dies’ gets existential atop spacey, soaring pop. As it amps up, Eilish’s voice breaks into an angered crack: “We tell each other lies.”
Strongest of all is the curveball-lobbing title-track. Fuelled by a powerful, expressive vocal, no doubt honed by years of touring, ‘Happier Than Ever’ throws an invisible middle finger in the direction of anybody who had Eilish down as a whisperer, and is possibly her finest vocal performance laid to record. “When I’m away from you, I’m happier than ever,” she croons like a love-lorn lounge singer clutching a silver Elvis mic, backed by sparse guitar – then, roughly half way through, her velvet-gloved hand cranks up the distortion. “Just fucking leave me alone” she yowls as swampy, fret-leaping guitar solos crash around her; the pain in her voice is palpable.
Though there are a few clear threads linking to the futuristic sound of her debut – most evident in the horny hormone-rush of ‘Oxytocin’, the wonky funk of ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’ and ‘Therefore I Am’’s gurgling synths – ‘Happier Than Ever’ finds Eilish and FINNEAS largely drawing on vintage sounds before disrupting them for this distinct new era. While one of ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’s main draws was its strange, unwieldy production, its successor is softer, and far more low-key. Instead, it unearths a similar sense of unease by skewing the familiar.
Though it’s unlikely that her place among their ranks was ever in doubt anyway, ‘Happier Than Ever’ fully establishes Billie Eilish as one of her generation’s most significant pop artists – and, better still, does so without repeating a single trick from the debut that turned her life upside down.
Release date: July 30
Record label: Interscope