Billie Eilish’s return to Manchester’s AO Arena has a truly vertiginous backstory. The last time she played in the city, in February 2019, she was at the University’s Academy 1, a venue a 10th the size of this 21,000 megadome. Her debut album was then still a month away from release. A single block of seating of this evening’s fluorescent-haired crowd would have constituted the entirety of her audience back then: this one’s been on the cards for a mighty long time.
But now the Happier Than Ever tour rolls into town at last following various postponements, and over the next few weeks, she’ll take in six dates at London’s The O2, alongside sold-out gigs in Birmingham and Glasgow. The shadow of Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage looms over these shows with her slot on the festival’s Friday night just over a fortnight away, when she will become the youngest ever solo artist to top the bill.
In that period, Eilish has gone from an introverted teenager still finding her place in world to bonafide pop star who relishes a tour as grandiose as this. Last year’s second record ‘Happier Than Ever’ proved that the hype could be maintained and exceeded, and NME’s five-star review said that the album “secures her status as a generational great”. After the mainstream scrambled to mimic her twisted alt-pop, she pushed forward and dabbled in rock, dance, bossa nova and beyond. Difficult second album? Not a chance.
This tour’s greatest triumph is how brilliant it makes those new songs sound. ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’’s glitchy beats now glide smoothly and with purpose, and the one-two punch of ‘GOLDWING’ and ‘Oxytocin’ – two of Billie’s hardest and most daring tracks – flourish, outstripping the whispery material that came early in her career. Away from the bluster, it becomes clear how decidedly unusual that second album is – debut ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ may have had the hits and impact, but ‘Happier Than Ever’ has proven to be more rewarding.
There’s also time for an even fresher song tonight, ‘TV’. She tells the crowd that she hasn’t played the song to anyone yet, and that she and brother, Finneas, co-writer and guitarist in her band, have “just written the track”. It’s a total heartbreaker, perhaps influenced by a recent break-up, and the acoustic song references the battle to preserve Roe v. Wade, as well as the recent Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial: “The internet’s gone wild watching movie stars on trial / While they’re overturning Roe v. Wade”. It’s unfiltered Billie, as exquisite and nuanced as anything she’s ever done.
She goes deep into her bag for some oldies, though you wonder for how much longer she needs them in a show as future-facing as this. Her 2018 collaboration with Khalid, ‘Lovely’, is sweet enough, though not entirely essential, and even ‘Ocean Eyes’, the 2016 breakout song that made her name and performed tonight from a cherry-picker, appears to be in the setlist more out of duty than it playing an essential part of the show. In a recent interview on chat-show king David Letterman’s Netflix show, she said that she won’t abandon the hits, or “mess with them” to satisfy her own needs, so they’re here to stay for now.
Many of tonight’s tracks are elevated by the tour’s impressive, playful staging. Making extensive use of a lengthy runway, and a sloped screen (which doubles up as a slide for the band during their goodbyes), the venue’s shape makes every seat – upper and lower bowl – feel totally immersed in the show. And when she recreates some of her most iconic videos – including ‘NDA’’s daredevil stunt car choreography and the haunting ‘When The Party’s Over’, where black goop pours out of her eyes – with help from the sloped screen, it’s just as visceral as the original clips.
As the night progresses, you get a good sense of how her momentous Glastonbury show will likely play out. There’s a healthy balance between bangers (‘Bad Guy’) and brooders (‘Your Power’), and a chipper Billie – whose stage presence flits between unstoppable performer and a goofy camp counsellor – seems as comfortable onstage as she’s ever been. There’s no nervous laughter, no ‘shucks-aren’t-you-good-to-me’ small-talk; she knows the command she holds over a crowd. With the talent she’s gleeful to showcase, you always feel immensely privileged to be witnessing someone embrace a role that they fully deserve.
For Manchester, this is a long-awaited return of a star they backed as early as anyone, further proof that this city’s crowds are as devoted and brilliant as anywhere on the planet. But for those heading down to Worthy Farm’s hallowed fields in a couple of weeks – or planning to catch on TV – it appears we’re heading to something mighty special. Roll on, Glasto…
Billie Eilish played:
‘bury a friend’
‘I Didn’t Change My Number’
‘Therefore I Am’
‘my strange addiction’
‘you should see me in a crown’
‘Billie Bossa Nova’
‘Not My Responsibility’
‘when the party’s over’
‘all the good girls go to hell’
‘everything i wanted’
‘Happier Than Ever’