Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever

Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever | Random J Pop

Maybe it’s just me, but Happier Than Ever doesn’t feel like one album. It feels like two. Or maybe three. One third of it feels like an extension of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Another third feels like it’s a soundtrack to Billie’s much publicised image shift. And the remainder sounds like a prelude to Billie genuinely being happier than she was before.

The second album is always one of the trickiest. Even more so if your first album sold over 4 million copies and won every Grammy in existence. The second album is the one where an artist wants to do different things; all the things they didn’t do with their first. But artists also feel obligated to not completely deviate from their first album, as not to alienate their fanbase. Unless you’re P!nk and say ‘Fuck that first album’. But P!nk is just different like that, and Billie isn’t P!nk. Although I do wish she’d had that same mindset to maybe not wholly pivot. But just turn a few more degrees either side.

Happier Than Ever feels like it’s caught between Billie wanting to try new things and explore new parts of herself and her musicality, but also feeling so comfortable in the place that she was when she made her debut, that she can’t pull herself from it fully. And it’s the same thing with her brother, co-writer, producer and partner in crime Finneas. As a producer he made a name for himself because of Billie’s debut. So as part of his auditorial branding as a producer, he kinda has to follow through on that. Hence why we get songs on this album such as “Therefore I Am” and “NDA”, which sound like they’re cut from the same cloth as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if these instances were better than what we got before, and if the things this album does which the previous one didn't weren’t so damn good.

Happier Than Ever was produced little over a year after Billie’s debut and conceived during a period of her life when she was still performing songs from it. So naturally there is some overlap, which will please fans. But I feel that Happier Than Ever drags its feet when it’s re-treading When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Happier Than Ever soars when it charts its own course and puts Billie in a whole different light.

And let’s be clear. These moments are by no means a huge departure. But nothing needs to be a huge departure in order for it to just be different. By simply shifting songs at a slightly different angle, things can be framed in this whole new way, and when Happier Than Ever does just this, it does Billie a major justice for this phase of her life that she’s in. Which is why whenever Happier Than Ever regresses back into When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? it feels so disappointing. Everything about Happier Than Ever is supposed to be about moving on, but this album doesn’t always seem to be able to do that.

Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever | Random J Pop

“OverHeated” is a really nice song, being a sung counterpart to “Not My Responsibility”, which is the music which featured in Billie tour visual, which saw her undressing and reciting a spoken word about her and the media's relationship with her body. Side note, this song wasn’t needed on the album. It coulda stayed as a tour specific piece. Especially given that it’s so long and it pretty much shares the same musical backdrop as “OverHeated”. Billie is not an R&B artist. But she’s always put out songs in proximity to the genre. Her introduction to the world was the R&B tinged “Ocean Eyes”, which to this day is still one of Billie Eilish’s best songs. R&B adjacent jams is a sweet spot for Billie that she needs to visit more often. She won’t. But she should.

Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever | Random J Pop

As much as I like shaking my ass to “Oxytocin” and thrashing my imaginary lacefront to “Happier Than Ever”, it’s the slower, more pensive and sombre moments on this album which really draw me in. I live for sad bitch bops, which I also feel is where Billie shines brightest and sounds her best vocally.

“Your Power” is gorgeous. The only thing that could have made this song better is if it built more towards the end. I needed orchestrated strings going the fuck off for the last minute of this shit. The same goes for “My Future”. Such a nice and chilled song which is in a completely different gear from what we’d heard Billie in prior, yet it suits her so well. But again, as much as I like the slow build we get with the drums coming in and additional instrumentation, I do wish we got an orchestrated strings moment to cap off the song. “Halley's Comet” is also beautiful, sounding almost like a lullaby. Billie’s vocals on this song leave me torn though. Because whilst her delivery really suits the song and captures the feeling of loneliness and longing, I sometimes find it difficult to hear what she’s singing because she’s SO deep in her mumble-singing bag. But I’mma get to that later. The last 30 seconds of this song switch completely, sounding quite literally like it’s a soundtrack to watching a comet in the sky, or Rosalina’s story from Super Mario Galaxy. Same thing. It’s a shame that “Halley’s Comet” is so shoddily sequenced on the album, and is followed by the seductive sounding-ass song “Not My Responsibility”. The shift in vibe just feels so abrupt.

Vibe shifting is a theme with Happier Than Ever. The album just hops far too casually between different styles of songs and vibes. There’s no effort made at all for this album to flow. My experience of listening to this album is like listening to a mixtape. Or watching the episodes of TV series with a clear series narrative out of order. I find it really strange that Billie herself has said that she never listens to this album out of order, when the current order of the songs is far from ideal and doesn’t do the album the best of justices. But then I have to remember who Billie’s core fanbase is and also how old Billie herself is. The kids don’t always want flowing bodies of work. They don’t see albums as bodies of work at all, but just a collection of songs. So with this in mind, it kinda makes sense why this album is sequenced the way it is. But the sequencing of this album is still a mess. I don’t get how “Happier Than Ever” was not made the album closer. It would have been the perfect song to cap the whole thing.

Another issue with this album which ties in to the sequencing somewhat, is the arrangements. Finneas’ production is meticulous. But there are one too many moments on this album where songs just ended, which is what contributes to the mixtape vibes. Half of the songs on this album don’t conclude in the way that I felt they should. Or alternatively they feature arrangements which are so one note and tepid that it renders songs flat from start to finish. And Billie isn’t giving any kind of variance in her performance to pick up the slack. Album opener “Getting Older” is a nice song. It’s perfect for the closing credit roll of a HBO TV show. Or an alternate piece of music for the opening of Up. It’s pretty subversive to have this album open with a song like this and I like this choice. But the song itself has no variance to it. It’s just a flatline. Then there’s “I Didn’t Change My Number”, which follows and presents a whole entire vibe shift; another song which is just a flatline from start to finish. This is a pretty common theme with songs on this album the music nor Billie provide any variance. “Happier Than Ever” is the only song on the album which actually goes somewhere. Even the songs on this album which I like and are some of my highlights (one of which is “Billie Bossa Nova”) could have benefitted from some different decisions where arrangements were concerned, to keep the songs more interesting.

Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever | Random J Pop

Billie and Finneas have a sound and a way of working, and that's great. But given how this album turned out, it's in need of a shake up. I began to feel this back with “No Way To Die”, which despite being a good song, still felt like Billie wasn't spreading her wings as much as she could. And Finneas chose to stay within a box, even beyond the confines of that of a Bond theme.

Finneas is an incredibly talented producer. But the expansion of his sound on this album, whilst skilful, makes me wish I’d heard another producer helm some of the songs; because when Finneas moves out of the sound and style you know him for, he ends up sounding like other people. “I Didn’t Change My Number” sounds like a Timbaland joint, but not as hard hitting. So all I could think of was how much harder the song could have gone had Timbaland actually produced it. “Oxytocin” sounds like an N.E.R.D joint, and then all I wanted was to hear Billie do something with Pharrell. “Goldwing” (shoulda been a full song) sounds Kanye West lite, but I couldn’t shake how much bigger and visceral the song would have sounded had Kanye been behind it. “My Future” sounds Stevie Wonder-esque and is nice. But having heard Deep Cotton absolutely kill this style on Janelle Monae’s albums and Ludwig Göransson does a great job of it on some of Childish Gambino’s albums, I would’ve loved to have heard their takes on it. And it’s these instances that made me realise that I’m ready to hear Billie work with other people. Finneas and Billie will grow more with time apart then they will solely together. Billie cooking up heat with other producers will force Finneas to step his game up. Especially as some of these producers are probably folk that Finneas looks up to and was intentionally channelling. But it will also push Billie out of her comfort zone to be able to write and work without Finneas, which will make her a better songwriter and singer. And then the two of them will be a bigger force when they do work together.

The Billie and Finneas combo is a double edged sword. Because the two of them feeling such comfort with one another in the music making process is what pushed them into new spaces with this album. But it’s also the one thing that stopped them from venturing out as far as I think they could and should have gone.

Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever | Random J Pop

Billie’s singing style is an acquired taste. And I’m not sure whether her choosing to sing this way is the same reason why she opted to wear oversized clothes and hide her body all of the time; because if we don’t hear her voice at its fullest, then we can’t really judge it. But it’s become a trademark for her at this point. Billie can absolutely sing clearly without mumbling. There are many moments on this album where her voice peeks out from the mumbles. We also heard it in earnest on “No Time To Die”. And the entirety of Billie’s debut EP Don’t Smile At Me barely features any mumble singing at all.

I personally don’t mind Billie’s singing style, except for when it gets in the way of songs, and I can’t understand what’s being sung. I had to listen to this album with Genius open because there were so many instances where I couldn’t hear what Billie was singing. The way that Finneas records and mixes Billie’s vocals also makes things trickier. Given that parts of this album were recorded on the road and in make-shift studios, I imagine Billie wasn’t always working with the best microphones in the most optimal of spaces, so there’s certainly that. Finneas is also adding all sorts of EQ’s to Billie’s vocals to make them sound like what he thinks is analog as fuck, so there’s that too. And then there’s the mixing of the songs, which can sometimes smother Billie’s vocals completely. Trying to hear Billie during the rock segment of “Happier Than Ever” feels like a task. Billie’s voice needs greater clarity more than it needs her to change how she sings. The analog vibe of Billie’s recorded vocals works on songs such as “My Future”, which has a retro vibe to it and has warm instrumentation. But on a song like “My Power”, Billie’s vocals should have been as clear as they could have been. I had the same issue with “No Time To Die”. Billie’s vocals should have been crystal clear. Not buried in fuzz and artifacting. It's a shame, because something that Billie's singles and not every song on the album highlights is how nice a voice Billie has when she doesn't mumble and Finneas isn't throwing effects on it. Billie also has a skill for arranging her vocals. The opening of "Goldwing" is a perfect example of how beautiful Billie's voice and vocal arrangements can be. It's fucking gorgeous, but there's not other moment on this album where we get anything like it again.

The DIY, rough around the edges approach to Billie’s vocals sometimes contrasts with the music, which is super clean and crisp by comparison. I’m all for stylistic choices being made where vocal production and mixing is concerned. But some of the choices made here were just wrong. Finneas keeps making the choices. And Billie is too okay with them when they’re wrong. Hence, why it would do both of them some good to work more with other artists and producers. They’re also so young and in their own bubble. So bursting this would also be a great growth experience for the two of them which will only make the music better.

Album Review: Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever | Random J Pop

Happier Than Ever shines best when Billie is at her most earnest. Billie has always been honest in her music. But sometimes in the past it had felt like Billie was either giving us who she thought people wanted her to be, or she was giving us a character she could hide behind. Billie appears to be in a place where she's a bit more comfortable peeling a layer or two back to show more of herself, and it works wonders for some of the songs here. I can imagine that Billie felt less pressure with this album than she did with her debut and you can hear it. The issue is that these freer, more true-to-Billie-as-she-is-no songs are interspersed with songs which feel like outtakes from her debut. So it feels like you’re being rubber banded between who Billie was and who Billie is, to such a point that you’ll probably have whiplash by track 10. Billie by no means has to show herself as being one thing or the other. We are all multifaceted beings. And there wasn’t such a huge gap between these albums that Billie wouldn’t still partly be the girl she was when she recorded her first album. But given the songs which were shortlisted for this album, I can’t help but section the songs on this album off into different corners. And it makes me wonder if Happier Than Ever would have worked better as an EP.

But this mix of songs makes sense given that Billie is still discovering who she is as a person and as an artist. But part of Billie discovering who she is as an artist is to think about the narrative of her albums, and not just expect the album cover and title to do all of the work and be this catch all thing. But I do have to say that Happier Than Ever intrigues me in a way that Billie’s debut EP did, but her debut album didn’t. I'm not entirely sure what it was about her debut album that just didn't click with me. But what everybody saw in Billie in that album, I see it here in Happier Than Ever, even if it isn't the most solid of albums. And I’ll also say that if you weren’t really feeling When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, you’ll probably find more to like with Happier Than Ever.


■ Billie Bossa Nova
■ My Future
■ Oxytocin 🔥
■ Goldwing 🏆
■ Halley’s Comet 🔥
■ Your Power 🔥
■ Happier Than Ever 🔥