REVIEW: On “Happier Than Ever,” Billie Eilish is Neither Hero nor Villian

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Billie Eilish’s album cover for her second studio album “Happier Than Ever.” Photo courtesy of deadline.com

While Billie Eilish’s music has received critical acclaim, she has been hit with a mountain of criticism, both valid and invalid, of her personal character over the past two years. While I feel a great deal of sympathy for her when she is attacked by misogynistic onlookers for wearing clothes that are “too revealing,” I feel less sympathy when she repeatedly ignores accusations of cultural appropriation.

But Eilish does not exist in a vacuum. She is a child of the entertainment industry, and she bears all the trauma that comes with that. If anything, the main takeaway from her sophomore album, “Happier Than Ever,” is that not even worldwide superstars can be classified as just heroes or villains. Eilish has all but abandoned the character she presented on 2019’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” Instead of an exaggerated “bad guy” who commits murder and seduces people’s dads, the character on “Happier Than Ever” seems to be much more honest. Many of the songs deal with the existential dread of being constantly sexualized from such a young age, speaking directly on her experiences with abuse and stalkers.

Focusing on topics like this for the better part of a 56-minute album gives a more complete picture of Billie Eilish as a person. The experiences she describes do not excuse her frequent cultural appropriation from the Black community in her speech and fashion, but they do give context to what made her into who she is. She is, above all, a product of fame. As such, she sadly joins the ranks of other former child celebrities in her trauma related to that high level of exposure.

Musically, the album immediately sets a different tone from her debut with the minimalist opener, “Getting Older.” On this song, Eilish begins not with a chart-topping banger, but with a quiet reflection on trauma. The songs that follow aren’t all as quiet as this one, but that stillness becomes a recurring theme in the album’s sound and lyricism.

There are some bangers to be found on here, like the dark dance song “NDA,” or the explosive finish to the album’s title track. But these moments are outnumbered by songs full of downtempo electronic music and ambient pop, rather than bass-heavy hip hop production.

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Just like my view on Billie Eilish as a person, though, I do have a few issues with the album. The single “My Future” was interesting when I first heard it, but the more I listen to it within the context of the record, it doesn’t present nearly as many interesting ideas as the album’s other slow cuts. The same could be said about “Halley’s Comet” and, to a lesser extent, “Billie Bossa Nova.”

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found on “Happier Than Ever.” I found myself compelled to relisten in a way that I just wasn’t with Eilish’s debut, and each relisten rewarded me with incredible production details and haunting lyrics. It’s a bold reinvention of her sound, to the extent that some of her old fans might not immediately click with it, but I deeply hope that the complex songwriting and emotional weight of what is presented here doesn’t go unappreciated.

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