Billie Eilish has a voice filled with secrets and techniques. She is understood for not often elevating its quantity larger than an ASMR-triggering whisper, however there’s additionally a sure taunting knowingness in its tone. Contemplate the withering “duh” that punctuates her breakout smash “Bad Guy” — for those who don’t get it by now, she appears to be saying with an audible eye-roll, she’ll by no means inform.
Like her idiosyncratic fashion sense, Eilish’s massively profitable first album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” from 2019, struck a cautious stability between expression and obfuscation. Positive, she and her brother, Finneas, overtly mentioned how they recorded it of their childhood residence and culled its lyrics from the darkest corners of Eilish’s personal nightmares. However she clearly delighted in maintaining sure issues to herself — blurring the strains between fantasy and actuality, irony and sincerity, with a sinister, self-preserving wink.
On “Getting Older,” the muted, ethereal quantity that opens her second album, “Happier Than Ever,” Eilish publicizes that she’s getting into a extra candid section. “I’ve had some trauma/Did issues I didn’t wanna/Was too afraid to inform ya/However now I feel it’s time,” she sings in her fluttering vibrato, accompanied simply by staccato keyboard notes.
The music is a snapshot of Eilish’s psyche on the opposite facet of her titanic, arms-full-of-Grammys fame, and its explicit taste of top-of-the-mountain ennui one way or the other finds the aesthetic frequent floor between Drake and Peggy Lee. Strangers and stalkers clamor for Eilish’s consideration, which leaves her feeling extra distant from the folks round her. The music she used to make for enjoyable has turn into a high-pressure job. “Issues I as soon as loved,” she croons with an is-that-all-there-is sigh, “simply maintain me employed now.”
The antagonists of Eilish’s final album had been stylistically macabre: demons haunting her thoughts and monsters lurking below her mattress. “Happier Than Ever” flicks on the lights to search out that the boogeymen are extra banal however simply as harmful — detached boyfriends, parasitic hangers-on and, worst of all, the abusive older males she addresses with vitriolic disgust on the gently strummed single “Your Power”: “And also you swear you didn’t know/You mentioned you thought she was your age,” she sings. “How dare you?”
Eilish insists that not all of those songs are straight autobiographical, and it’s true that “Happier Than Ever” will not be precisely a confessional. It’s as an alternative a report fixated on the stress between non-public and public data, a social-media-era pop star’s meditation on how a lot candor — if any — she owes her viewers. (At occasions, it recollects the sensual provocations of Madonna’s mid-90s period greater than some other modern pop album; the unapologetic spoken-word manifesto “Not My Responsibility” has greater than a tinge of “Human Nature.”)
Eilish’s physique, her sexuality and her romantic relationships have all turn into targets of scrutiny as her fame has grown, and “Happier Than Ever” finds her erecting barbed boundaries round all these battle zones — if often teasing the listener with a number of shrewdly dropped particulars. “I purchased a secret home once I was 17,” Eilish, now 19, sings on the serpentine “NDA.” “Had a reasonably boy over however he couldn’t keep/On his approach out made him signal an NDA.”
That line is directly boastful and melancholy, and its duality makes “NDA” one of the vital compelling songs on the album. “Happier Than Ever” is partially a chronicle of a wildly profitable, obsessively surveilled younger lady making an attempt up to now and discover her wishes. On the swoony ballad “Halley’s Comet,” Eilish bemoans the disconnect inherent on this workaholic way of life: “Halley’s comet/Comes round greater than I do,” she sings. “Midnight for me is three a.m. for you.” Elsewhere, although, on the aptly titled “Billie Bossa Nova” or the industrial-tinged, 9 Inch Nails-esque “Oxytocin,” Eilish revels within the thrill of getting to sneak round to get her kicks: “What would folks say in the event that they pay attention via the wall?” she intones with a menacing glint.
“Oxytocin” is without doubt one of the extra up-tempo songs on this album, which isn’t precisely saying a lot. Throughout its slower stretches, “Happier Than Ever” languishes. Eilish and Finneas (who produced and, together with Eilish, co-wrote each music on the album) have moved away from the minimalist beats and hip-hop affect that enlivened “When We All Fall Asleep,” opting as an alternative for a extra backward-glancing sound that references trip-hop, bossa nova and even jazzy, 1950s vocalists. It’s hardly a secure wager. Eilish is clearly not curious about merely replicating the method that made her debut album such a world-conquering smash — and the emotional turmoil chronicled in these post-fame songs maybe recommend why. We’ve seen her in a crown, however in its most antagonistic moments, “Happier” looks like an abdication.
The dangers begin to repay, although, on the album’s robust closing stretch, starting because the warping “NDA” segues into the brash posturing of “Subsequently I Am,” certainly one of a number of lukewarm singles that advantages from the encircling context of the album. Maybe essentially the most shocking and promising is the nearer “Male Fantasy” — an arrestingly fairly acoustic ballad that follows via with the confessionalism promised initially of the report.
“Male Fantasy” shocks not due to its informal mentions of pornography and physique picture points, however for the way utterly Eilish lets her ever-present emotional armor fall. Outdated buddies really feel like strangers, she admits in a plaintive voice. Intrusive ideas hang-out her within the automobile. Eilish has all the time had a aptitude for chopping deadbeat guys all the way down to measurement, however right here she furtively pines over the type of heartbreaker she’s normally so adept at insulting in her songs: “I do know I ought to however I might by no means hate you.”
For all her mainstream reputation and music-industry accolades, Eilish stays an inveterate insurgent. “Happier Than Ever,” although, exposes each the strengths and the constraints of her most well-liked mode of subversion. The neon-coiffed horror-pop phenom who as soon as filmed a video through which a tarantula crawls out of her mouth has bargained that essentially the most surprising sophomore album transfer was to dye her hair bombshell blonde and refashion herself as a sort of retro-leaning pop crooner. Sadly, from a distance, this method can circle again on itself and look and sound an excessive amount of like the kind of traditionalism she was making an attempt so astutely to keep away from.
What saves “Happier Than Ever” from the doldrums, although, is the tantalizing flashes it gives of one thing else. Maybe its most exhilarating second comes in the course of the penultimate, title track: In the midst of the music, a politely restrained, ukulele-accompanied ditty explodes right into a sky-scraping, distortion-charged energy ballad. Right here Eilish proves she will have it each methods. Her voice (maybe the loudest it’s ever been on report) rises to satisfy the drama, and he or she unleashes a disarmingly earnest torrent of bottled-up grievances: “All the time mentioned you had been misunderstood/Made all my moments your individual/Simply [expletive] depart me alone.” For a fleeting second, she has given away all her secrets and techniques, and he or she sounds invigoratingly unburdened.
“Happier Than Ever”