Review: Billie Eilish’s ‘Happier Than Ever’ Juxtaposes Confidence and Vulnerability
Billie Eilish strips back her unwavering self-assurance to demonstrate a rare vulnerability in an autobiographical sophomore album that dissects the struggles that accompany fame.
Eilish performing in the Netherlands in 2019.
Billie Eilish revolutionized pop through the institution of a dark, eclectic style in her debut studio album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” Between the tantalizing whispers and her penchant for contrasting harsh instruments with soft vocals, Billie Eilish united reality and fantasy to tell the story of teenage trauma through lucid dreams. Winning a whopping six Grammys in 2020, Eilish skyrocketed to mainstream success and mass fame at just 18 years old.
With her newfound notoriety came the unforgiving gaze of strangers and the ever-present institutionalized misogyny. Plagued by endless comments on her clothes, attitude and body, Eilish responded with absolute confidence and a cold demeanor that characterized her as untouchable. In her sophomore album, “Happier Than Ever,” Eilish reveals the fallacy of this public attitude through the revelation and subsequent dissection of the struggles that have accompanied her rise to the top.
“Happier Than Ever” is both Eilish’s artful confession and lyrical acceptance of the trauma she has endured without filter or edit. Her foray into new musical territory supplements her decision to shed the look of her past. Eilish has left behind the clothes she described as “800 sizes bigger than she is,” which the pop star said she used as a shield from other people’s perceptions. Eilish has metamorphosed, replacing neon green hair and oversized clothes with soft blonde waves and British “Vogue” cover shoots in a corseted dress. Achieving newfound vulnerability through uniquely deep and truthful lyrics, Eilish successfully removes her mask of unwavering self-assurance to reveal her insecurities and uncertainty in an autobiographical tale of her rise to fame and the subsequent fallout. Pushing her signature sound into uncharted territories, Eilish’s bold intimacy and vocal maturity transcend the constraints of the pop genre to create a rhythmically diverse album that is comfortable in its tranquility and simplicity.
“Getting Older” is the vulnerable and beautiful introduction to the raw nature of “Happier Than Ever,” opening with a soft tone over a delicate synth. Establishing the theme of unfamiliarity with both oneself and others, “Getting Older” alludes to Eilish’s struggle with stalkers and existentialism, as well as self-reproach for her disillusionment with fame. In the chorus, Eilish sings “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now / Things I’m longing for / Someday, I’ll be bored of / It’s so weird / That we care so much until we don’t,” explaining how she’s lost her connection with music now that she is the object of the world’s critical and expectant gaze. She is weighed down by the attention that is constantly upon her, creating a numb and desolate feeling. She sings that she’s “happier than ever, at least, that’s my endeavor,” as she pursues the happiness that was once familiar and easy but has since become hard to maintain. Her passion has lost its luster, and, like so many who feel stuck, she is left only with uncertainty about the future and an immense weight on her shoulders.
Eilish has become disenchanted with her present and its harsh realities, longing for a different time to escape to by romanticizing the openness of the future and all the possibilities it holds. The themes introduced in “Getting Older” are furthered in “my future,” which highlights the potential for growth and change that only the unknown future can bring. Beginning with a melancholic sound before shifting to a happier, more optimistic tone, Eilish presents her fans with hope as the drum crescendos with the promise that things will get better. A tale of self-love in a new jazz style, Eilish sings “I'm not comin’ home / Do you understand? / I’ve changed my plans / 'Cause I’m in love / With my future / Can’t wait to meet her.” The simplistic beauty of the song creates a feeling of lightness. Eilish has reconfigured her definition of “home,” choosing to overcome her troubled past and crushing sadness by looking to the future — her future.
Like most women in the limelight, Billie Eilish is no stranger to body-shaming. A paparazzi photo of Eilish in 2020 went viral when the singer was seen outside in a tank top instead of her usual baggy clothes. She went viral again in 2021, this time for choosing to wear a corset in her British “Vogue” cover shoot. There was no shortage of comments about her body, ranging from blatantly insulting, subtly condescending or enthusiastically encouraging — everyone had an opinion. In “Not My Responsibility,” a spoken-word interlude in “Happier Than Ever” which was originally debuted in her canceled 2020 “When We All Fall Asleep” tour, Eilish questions the tendency to judge other based on appearance by asking “if I wear more, if I wear less / Who decides what that makes me? What that means? / Is my value based only on your perception? / Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?” The objectification of the female body is not limited to the famous — it is a struggle that countless people understand and live through, but which Eilish experiences in the extreme. Leading by example, “Not My Responsibility” aggressively engages in the discourse that has haunted Eilish by restructuring the track to acknowledge the breadth and trauma of the issue in an effort to gain closure.
With one too many slow ballads that don’t live up to their predecessors, the album’s slight redundancy takes away from its perfection as the listener becomes exasperated hearing about Eilish’s niche industry struggles. However, the title track rights the course of “Happier Than Ever” with its relatable story of the inexplicable loss of happiness in a relationship. Starting slow, “Happier Than Ever” has a stark shift in tone with a bridge that gives the listener goosebumps as they scream along. The consuming anger at being mistreated preaches messages of self-love as Eilish sings “I don't relate to you, no / ’Cause I'd never treat me this shitty / You made me hate this city.” A total diversion from the rest of the album, “Happier Than Ever” is the first song where the raw talent of Eilish’s vocals is clearly articulated through her rage and heartbreak.
“Happier Than Ever” is a melodic retelling of Billie Eilish’s hardships following the mass success of her debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” The album maintains its roots in eclectic pop while bringing an unfamiliar simplicity to Eilish’s discography. The empathetic record’s jazz style explains Eilish’s perturbed view from the top as she unburdens her heavy shoulders with brutal honesty. Shrouded in a haunting darkness, the alluring view into Eilish’s complex psychebrings an unseen depth and power to her music as she explores a version of herself which is both more intimate and genuine.