No one wants to write the thing that comes after your breakthrough smash record. The old saying, that you have your whole life to write your debut album, and then 11 months to write your second one, isn’t entirely accurate. Ideas ebb and flow; something you scribbled in a notebook years ago and forgot about might come roaring back into your brain while in the studio. Still, the mental landscape inhabited is a very different one, as artists are forced to reckon with the fact that whatever they pen will no longer be the psychic equivalent of tossing something into the void without necessarily getting a response. Expectations are a burden, whether positive or negative. And Happier Than Ever, Billie Eilish’s slick, sly sophomore album, takes the concept of expectations and twists it every way imaginable, grappling with the burden until it becomes another means of creative release.
“It’s different when a stranger’s always waiting at your door.” That line, delivered early on opening song “Getting Older,” signals the feeling of pressure and exposed vulnerability running throughout the album, a look at fame that deals less with the challenge of life in the spotlight, and more with the difficulty of crafting honest art and authentic emotion when everything you do is scrutinized with a cultural magnifying glass. Luckily, Eilish proves herself a master at wielding her anxieties and insecurities in ways that translate into potent and affecting music; even a track that’s overtly about the rush of secret romance, “Billie Bossa Nova,” manages to contain layers that suggest the constant theme of privacy versus exposure is never far from her mind: “Use different names at hotel check-ins… nobody saw me in the lobby.” The record takes all those seemingly unrelatable concerns about being too famous, and filters them through universal themes of love, longing, regret, and anger, cleverly turning a potential weakness into an obvious strength, with a sly meta self-awareness to boot.
Part of what made When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? so great was the singer’s knack for turning idiosyncratic personal foibles into stirring anthems that spoke to listeners on multiple levels. And Happier Than Ever is proof that, though her life may be very different now, Eilish’s talent for the alchemical process of making deeply personal matters into profound and empathetic music remains as strong as ever, if not more so. That skill was already present in early single “my future,” as well as more recent ones like “Your Power” and “Lost Cause,” but it runs throughout the record; whether delivering a saucy ode to lust on “Oxytocin” or a kiss-off like the title track, Eilish turns her individual concerns intimately understandable, as effective as Adele or Taylor Swift at making pop-star pontifications feel like they were already lying, Inception-like, within the listener all along, just waiting to be revealed.
As always, the confessional nature of her lyrics drives home the themes. “I don’t want to want you / But in my dreams, I seem to be more honest / And I must admit, you’ve been in quite a few,” she sings on “Halley’s Comet,” a simple descending melody that subsequently transforms into a dreamy haze of acknowledging when you’ve fallen in love. “Overheated,” which starts off as a meditation on her frenemy-like relation to paparazzi, smartly transforms into a body-positivity refutation of the expectations placed upon her—and women in general—as she delivers rapid-fire lines like, “Everybody said it was a letdown, I was only built like everybody else now / But I didn’t get a surgery to help out, ‘cause I’m not about to redesign myself now, am I?” And the pulsing, heartbeat-like throb of “NDA” manages to take the classic pop-star daydream of escape (“Maybe I should think about a new career / Somewhere in Kuaui where I can disappear”) and turn it into a harrowing look at the desire to protect yourself from any possibility of emotional hurt (“I can crave you, but you don’t need to know”).
Musically, Eilish’s producer-brother Finneas remains an essential aspect of the artist’s sound. His talents behind the board have grown notably in the two years since When We All Fall Asleep, and his sonic palette expands considerably on this record, without sacrificing the signature muted intensity that drives his sister’s music. Yes, there’s still the clever fusion of icy electro and woozy trap that powers songs like “I Didn’t Change My Number” and “Therefore I Am,” and his facility with organic instrumentation continues to elevate revealing ballads like the masterful closer, “Male Fantasy.” But there’s so much more going on between those numbers: “Goldwing” and “Everybody Dies” resemble latter-day Radiohead songs, brittle electronic drums and looping synths that push Eilish’s voice in new directions. And the singer has never done anything as bombastic as the title track, a monster of a song that transforms halfway through from a fragile banjo number into a distorted explosion of arena-rock bluster.
But a few of the album’s experiments don’t quite land. “Not My Responsibility,” a spoken-word retort to sexist criticisms of her behavior and body, is less a song than a TED talk on the ways she’s been unfairly treated—accurate in its assessments, but stripped of artistry. It’s followed by “OverHeated,” which loses its lyrical slickness in an oddly generic hip-hop beat that never quite lands. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of unsuccessful sequencing—“Everybody Dies,” “Your Power,” and “NDA” are all strong cuts, but following one another, they feel jarring, as though Eilish and her brother couldn’t bear to leave such quality material in the studio, regardless of how inelegantly they work when placed together. There are just a few too many tracks on Happier Than Ever, which starts off unstoppably strong, but starts to falter in the back half.
Still, a surfeit of great music is a good problem to have. Billie Eilish’s second album expands upon everything that worked the last time and pushes it in new directions, a creative muse restless and bold in its ambition. It may not always land, but this is a terrific release that proves Eilish’s staying power, demonstrating she’s more than up to the task of delivering on the promise of her debut. And like its title, her musical journey may not have arrived at the stated destination yet, but the mission to get there is what drives this passionate, profound artist.