New Billie Eilish Does Not Make Me Happier Than Ever
I listened to the new Billie Eilish Album, Happier Than Ever, took notes, and promptly went on vacation. In the intervening week, reviews of the album have come out from professional critics. As I read these reviews I kept wondering if we had listened to the same album. A lot of them were very positive and, like the album, repetitive at times. It made me wonder if they were just parroting the same press release.
It’s not that I dislike the album. On the contrary, it’s much better in some ways than a typical sophomore effort. Second albums are notoriously lesser than premier albums. The pressure to get a second album out often results in outtakes or other lesser songs being used. Usually, an artists second album seems redundant. Not so with Happier Than Ever. The pandemic and it’s moratorium on touring gave Eilish a unique opportunity to spend time writing and recording. Eilish and brother Finneas stretch their musical horizons, incorporating styles other than her usual hip hop influenced pop. Unfortunately, there were sown the seeds of the album’s failure. There are too many different styles and tones, from light jazz to retro 70s to Eilish’s signature pop style. Happier Than Ever comes across as three distinct concepts, any one of which Eilish didn’t have enough material, jammed into one album. This, in turn, gives the album a disjointed and perplexing feeling to it. Also, as is the case with all experiments, some just fail, dragging the rest of the album down with it.
In case you think I’m just an Eilish hater (I can hear the cries of “Ok Boomer” – though I’m not a Boomer) I’ve been a fan of Eilish since I first heard “Ocean Eyes” long before her first album was released. That’s why this album is so painful to listen to. She is a supremely talented artists – perhaps one of the best artists of her generation. This album obscures that talent behind too many tropes, gimmicks, and failed concepts.
The lead off song, “Getting Older”, is one of those tropes. It’s a 70s soft rock song, and just as dull and repetitive as most soft rock from that era. Later in Happier Than Ever, you get a similar 70’s inspired soft rock song, “Your Power”. This time, the song channels the better parts of that genre, especially Bread (yes, they were sappy but brilliant) while avoiding the excesses. The ending track, “Male Fantasy” has a more indie pop flavor, but you can still hear the 70s influences. It’s twee but listenable. Altogether, these three songs represent album concept one – retro 70’s soft rock.
The second song on the album “I Didn’t Change My Number”, is more classically Eilish. It’s pop, it’s hip hop, it’s Billie Eilish! This is the first of the “true Eilish” songs on the album. “Oxycotin” is mostly classic Billie but with a bit more industrial influence. Her voice moves from her trademark hush to a shout while the dance beats evolve into more Ministry or Nitzer Ebb than classic Billie. This was an avenue that she could have explored more, evolving her sound into more aggressive places. Alas, this is the only song that heads in this direction. Another classicly Eilish song, “Lost Cause” melds in Portishead-like trip hop beats. Like “Oxycotin” this extends her sound into an interesting direction. “Therefore I Am”, my favorite song on the album, keeps the Eilish party going. Hushed vocals, dance beats, hip hop inflections all the typical Eilish elements are found here. “Therefore I Am” is classic Eilish in the same vein as “All Good Girls Go To Hell”. In the midst of the typically Eilish set is “NDA”. This could have been a great song except for the heavy use of a vocoder. Billie Eilish has a powerful voice and doesn’t need a vocoder. It ruins the song. Thus, ends album concept two – Billie Eilish tinkers with and extends her existing style to mostly good effect.
The third song on Happier Than Ever, “Billie Bossa Nova”, kicks off the third concept. Like the title says, it’s a 50’s style bossa nova tune. Bossa nova is a form of Latin music related to samba. During the 1950s, bossa nova rhythms were integrated into jazz and pop to create a form of danceable Latin jazz. For Billie Eilish, this is weird but interesting. She follows this with “my future” which is clearly a 1950s/1960s tin pan alley style jazz number. Her voice is suited to this type of music, but I don’t see her fans being into this style of music. Eilish continues with the jazz music later on in the album with “Overheated”. This song is light jazz meets electronic beats. If that sounds odd, that’s because it is. Its hard to say where Eilish is taking this fascination with jazz but it’s clearly something she wishes to continue because it does on the album. “Everyone Dies” is flat out light jazz and “Halley’s Comet” sounds like a Diana Krall reject except that it turns into circus music – that’s only description I can come up with for this bizarre riff – right in the middle. I have no take on that. It’s just a WTF moment and too weird for words. The third album concept inside of Happier Than Ever is clearly a jazz album where Billie Eilish tries on a variety of jazz styles to see what works.
Adding to the strangeness of the album are two truly odd songs. The first, “GOLDWING” starts out like a modern choral piece, the kind of music the great choral conductor Robert Shaw would have chosen, only to have it switch abruptly into a typical dance song halfway through. It’s not unusual for a pop or dance pop song to use a more classical setting as an intro but this choral piece is more than a minute of a two-and-a-half-minute song, or roughly a third. That makes it less an intro and more a different song welded onto the front of an EDM style dance song. Even stranger is “Not My Responsibility”. It is full of peculiar prog rock effects and new age synths over which Eilish speaks, not sings, some kind of monologue. It’s like listening to recently found Pink Floyd rejects from the Dark Side of the Moon recording sessions – the kind of reject they would have buried deep in the bowels of the earth out of embarrassment. As if Pink Floyd could ever create something so awful…
All of these experiments are the root of the problem with Happier Than Ever. Billie and Finneas don’t just experiment a little with her signature sound, nor do they reject it entirely. They try to do too much in one album. A Billie Eilish 70s style soft rock album would be very interesting. A Billie Eilish jazz album, later in her career, would be worth listening to because she has the voice for it. A follow up to WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? that evolves her sound so it isn’t formulaic would be welcome or even expected. All of this at once creates a disjointed listening experience. The listener doesn’t get the opportunity to decide which of these Billie Eilish’s they want to hear. Instead, we are forced into a kind of musical bondage without a safe word for the styles we don’t like. Unlike her first album, some songs – “GOLDWING” and “Not My Responsibility” especially – are flat out terrible failures.
All of this points to the limits of her brother Finneas as a producer. It’s the producer’s job, not the artist, to create a cohesive vision for the album. Happier Than Ever shows an artist without a sober guiding hand, who is allowed to wildly experiment without constraints, producing a work that is, at best, incoherent. What’s sad is that there are great songs here, but they are lost in the bad songs, confusing mix of styles, and technical errors like with “NDA”. Hopefully, Eilish will see past the slobbering praise of critics and realize that she needs a seasoned producer who will care more about her music and less about the paycheck or her cult of personality. There are ways to stretch as an artist but putting out an album like this is not it.