On Friday, Billie Eilish returned with Happier Than Ever, her follow-up to 2019’s megasuccessful When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It’s more mature—and reportedly more personal—but is it any good? Here are our staff’s instant reactions.
What is your tweet-length review of Happier Than Ever?
Kate Halliwell: Another impressive, affecting album from Billie—but singing about how old she feels at 19 is not doing me any favors mentally.
Justin Sayles: The youths have discovered adult contemporary, but it kinda rules.
Alyssa Bereznak: Coming of age while famous is a tale as old as iPhones, but damn if Billie doesn’t tell it in the most melancholic way.
Lani Renaldo: Justin Bieber has Purpose, Billie Eilish has Happier Than Ever? It seems like there comes a time in every pop star’s life when the expectations of fame and desire for normalcy become the fodder for an album. Billie is more mature, pensive, nostalgic, and brutally honest today when compared to her 17-year-old self. Most times, I don’t pity the artist, but Billie, somehow, made an overly repetitive album idea seem endearing. Plus, it sucks to be her ex-boyfriend.
Charles Holmes: When Pop Stars Fall Asleep, Where Do Their Mature Sophomore Albums Go?
Katie Baker: Me, age 38: anyway it just stuck out to me that the only track listed in lower-case letters is the one called “my future” because that’s kind of like, a nod to her past, and the other day Finneas was saying tha—
My son, age 3: Mama, there’s pee in my bed.
What is your favorite song on Happier Than Ever?
Baker: Really been digging the “NDA” -> “Therefore I Am” -> “Happier Than Ever” run near the end and feel like that trio really showcases the scope of the album.
Sayles: A few choices here: the devastating “Your Power,” the infectious philosophical excursion of “Therefore I Am,” the organ-driven bounce of “I Didn’t Change My Number,” which is a few hi-hats from sounding like something Mike Jones could have rapped on. But I’m going with the title track, where the album crescendos.
Renaldo: “Getting Older” (“Halley’s Comet” deserves mention too).
Bereznak: I’ve had “Lost Cause” on replay for weeks now.
Halliwell: The heavy-hitting chorus to “NDA” has been stuck in my head for weeks and it’s still the highlight of the album for me (followed closely by the last half of “Happier Than Ever”).
Holmes: Billie singing over a simple guitar on “Male Fantasy” made me wish that all of Happier Than Ever was this stripped down. “Therefore I Am” is a close second.
What is your least favorite?
Holmes: “Not My Responsibility” thematically makes sense on the album, but it’s also a slow moment on an album that often lacks propulsion.
Halliwell: “Everybody Dies” is a skip for me, sorry!
Bereznak: I would’ve liked her to skip “Not My Responsibility” entirely and just let “OverHeated” stand for itself. Questions about the ownership paparazzi/internet randos feel they have of the stars they stalk are entirely valid, and it’s likely cathartic for Billie to pose them. But the more intentionally profound a spoken-word interlude is meant to be, the more deeply embarrassed I am by it.
Sayles: Probably because I’m not the target demo for this album, but I’m not wild about Happier Than Ever when it detours into morose–Norah Jones territory. I’ll pass on “Halley’s Comet.”
Baker: Look, it’s nothing personal and I appreciate the message behind the lyrics, but down with spoken-word tracks!! Nothing worse than when one of those puppies pops up on shuffle when you have people over and everyone kind of slowly starts shifting in their seats and glancing around and no, I’m not a nervous hostess, why do you ask?
Which lyrics stick out to you the most?
Sayles: It’s all of “Getting Older.” If she’s getting old, then what the hell am I?
Bereznak: “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now / Things I’m longing for / Someday, I’ll be bored of.”
Holmes: “Getting Older” is in the running for most devastating song of the year and that’s thanks to lyrics that bounce from emotionally brutal to darkly wry and back again. Below are the lines that will break even the iciest of hearts:
- “Can’t shake the feeling that I’m just bad at healing”
- “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now”
- “I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna / Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time”
Renaldo: A few: “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now”; “Cause I like to do things God doesn’t approve of if she saw us”; “If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman?”; “I just wonder why you’d wanna stay / If everybody goes, you’d still be alone.”
Halliwell: The chorus of “Getting Older” was a bit of a blow: “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now / Things I’m longing for / Someday, I’ll be bored of.”
Baker: (Don’t say the “Getting Older” chorus, Katie, don’t say the Getting Older chorus) Uhhh, I liked when she gave God a feminine pronoun and also when she sang “articles, articles, articles […] interviews, interviews interviews.”
How does Happier Than Ever compare to When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Baker: My favorite song on WWFA,WDWG is “When the Party’s Over” and I feel like the new album has a lot of that vibe without being too dreary.
Halliwell: Less exciting but more honest—an improvement on a personal, celebrity level but maybe not musically.
Sayles: Musically more appealing to me, which may not be a good thing, given my age, etc. But Billie has said that this album is autobiographical, whereas much of her previous work has been based on characters. In that light, Happier Than Ever is the more interesting record.
Bereznak: When We Fall Asleep is more jaunty and haunting … jaunting? From the Invisalign removal to the menacing bass on “You Should See Me in a Crown,” it embraced the album’s whirlwind writing/recording process and celebrated Billie’s gothy teen persona. I’ve always thought of it as a modern companion album to Nightmare Before Christmas, or something. But Happier Than Ever is about growth. It contextualizes her kiss-offs, and Finneas lets Billie’s voice breathe and drag and stretch and somersault without ever drowning her out with chaotic synths and the like. Lyrically, Billie is still as cryptic as ever on songs like “Oxytocin,” and “NDA,” but comes up for glimmers of vulnerability on “My Future,” and “Your Power.” Taken together it’s textured, messy, and most important, honest. The kids are gonna be all right!
Holmes: Happier Than Ever may not be as big, fun, or innocent as Billie’s debut, but then again it’s a record made by a pop star who entered the music landscape as a teenager and returned a few years later more weary, skeptical, and honest. Billie’s sophomore album feels like an artist looking back at everyone and everything that tried to destroy her, which is rightfully hard to listen to.
Is there a potential hit on this album on the same level as, say, “Bad Guy”? And does there need to be?
Holmes: The success of Billie’s debut album vaulted her into the pop star landscape even if her music never seemed to comfortably fit within that mold. Similarly, the sheer dominance of “Bad Guy” never felt fully emblematic of what the teenage singer-songwriter had to offer. If Billie fans can find a hit on this album or at least stream one to the stratosphere, they will have my undying respect. Their best bet is probably “Oxytocin.”
Sayles: “Oxytocin” feels like the most obvious attempt to replicate “Bad Guy,” but it doesn’t quite get there. I’m not sure there’s a ready-made megahit here, but Billie is now big enough and the album is big enough that one massive hit is sure to break loose.
Halliwell: “Therefore I Am” has been the biggest radio success of the five pre-release singles—deservedly, it’s a banger—and I’m not sure anything else here can surpass it in terms of radio-friendly success. But I’d love to be proved wrong, and who knows what the youths of today will vibe with?
Baker: I could see “Oxytocin” being popular in crowded spaces where good-looking and vibrant young people meet up to move their bodies in suggestive ways. If you mean which song is going to be taking viewers to commercial breaks on NFL on NBC broadcasts? I’d go with, like, the bossa nova one or “I Didn’t Change My Number.”
Bereznak: First of all, anyone who watched The World’s a Little Blurry knows that Billie detests an obvious “hit.” Second, there’s an embarrassment of hits on this album! [Assumes jackie-christie-arguing.gif position]: “Therefore I Am,” “Lost Cause,” “NDA,” “Happier Than Ever,” “Power.” Individually, these never reach the elite earworm/Twitter meme levels of “Bad Guy,” but together they demonstrate a depth that’s built for the long run. All that said, I could see the emo half of “Happier Than Ever” blowing up on a D’Amelio ’Tok or something.
Renaldo: No. “Therefore I Am,” which generally was a commercially successful song, might be the only stretch on this album, but I don’t think she’s looking for critical acclaim this time around. It seems like Billie was more focused on storytelling and distancing herself from making another hit. It’s clear, she doesn’t enjoy having more fame to deal with. Billie is such a powerful presence in music that I don’t think it matters if she has another “Bad Guy.”
Use this space to discuss Finneas’s production on Happier Than Ever.
Renaldo: The easiest thing in the world is to overproduce a song. The ability to stop when the song is complete is a gift. Finneas possesses the ability to understand simplicity—and the sonic simplicity of this album, especially in comparison to When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go. It shows that he can serve the song and leave just enough space for Billie’s words to cut through.
Halliwell: Finneas, as ever, do less. The dogs at the beginning of “I Didn’t Change My Number” were particularly jarring.
.@finneas before starting to produce #HappierThanEver : pic.twitter.com/2Joy4MiKYT— Finneas Data (@FinneasData) July 29, 2021
Sayles: When he’s on, like on “Lost Cause” or “I Didn’t Change My Number,” he’s one of the best producers working in popular music. (Also, shout-out to whichever of the O’Connell family pit bulls made it onto “Change My Number”; my money’s on Shark, but don’t rule out Peaches.)
Bereznak: I think you mean FINNEAS. Big Bro did good. Overall this album sounds a little less like a devil emoji bursting out of a child’s bedroom, and a little more like they had some adult conversations about how crazy life got since 2019.
Holmes: In a year when Jack Antonoff is holding half the pop game hostage, I’m very appreciative of Finneas.
Is there anything about fame that sounds appealing after listening to this album?
Renaldo: Absolutely not.
Holmes: The money.
Baker: The secret house at age 17 referenced in “NDA” sounds like the dream—that is, if it weren’t purchased specifically to avoid stalker and paparazzi nightmares. But to me the most vivid album-related example of how hectic celebrity life is isn’t even from the songs themselves but from this Vogue article, whose lede describes the lengths she had to go to just to dye her hair.
Halliwell: Certainly not at 19!
Sayles: Whenever a kid declares they want to be an influencer or YouTuber or TikToker or whatever, they should be required to listen to “Not My Responsibility.”
Bereznak: Yes, actually: The ability to have a romantic fling sign an NDA.
Where does Billie Eilish go from here?
Renaldo: Billie has made clear that she’s going to dictate her own path. Simply put, she goes wherever the hell she wants.
Halliwell: Hopefully on a wildly successful 2022 world tour that does not get canceled. Fingers crossed.
Baker: Collaborate with Big Red Machine and be a part of this generation’s Last Waltz!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sayles: My guess is she’ll probably need a U-Haul truck for all the Grammys she’ll win in 2022. (Billie is nothing if not awards bait at this point.) But at this point, it’s not unreasonable to start throwing around ridiculous critic phrases like “generation-defining” in relation to Billie.
Holmes: I’m not trying to pocket watch, but when you have “Bad Guy” money you can go wherever you want. But I wouldn’t be mad at a Gangsta Grillz project with DJ Drama.
Bereznak: I honestly really hope she’s getting some rest and doing her shin splint exercises. Billie is on a real tear and it seems like the only thing that might get in the way is the weight of the entire critical internet.