“The second record I’m more buckled in because, God, how many times do you see people slump on their sophomore record? Nine out of 10″ said Katy Perry in the lead up to the mammoth ‘Teenage Dream’. The pressure for any artist to live up to expectations on their second album is huge, but for Eilish it is almost unparalleled; rarely is an album not just as commercially and critically successful as ‘When We All Fall Asleep’ but also as influential on the future of music. ‘WWAFA…WDWG?’ was not just another #1 album, it was a bold and exciting template of what pop music *could* sound like. The album has already inspired leagues of imitators and will undoubtedly come to be understood as one of the most significant albums of the 2010s if not of the 21st Century period.
After the experimentation of her last full length project, Eilish – like many of her pop contemporaries during lockdown – has looked to the timeless sounds of the past. It’s not so much that the futurism of her debut album isn’t present here, it’s just no longer the central focus. If there’s one word that has been used again and again by critics to describe this album it’s ‘mature’; a word historically used in equal measure to denote great song-writing and as a euphemism for ‘boring’. ‘Happier Than Ever’, at times, veers into both territories; the best pre-release single ‘Your Power’ offers a masterful dissection of predatory and abusive power over lush, acoustic guitar picking (“She was sleeping in your clothes / But now she’s got to get to class”). Too often, however, – particularly on the album’s first half – limp electropop production is used as a backdrop to otherwise arresting lyricism (see opener ‘Getting Older’).
There are, however, plenty of reminders of the exhilarating greatness of Finneas and Eilish; ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’, while unfortunately not building into something greater across it’s nearly three minutes, begins with a disarming dog growl that is then incorporated into the rest of the song. It’s an invigorating left-field production choice reminiscent of the inclusion of a dentist drill in ‘When We All Fall Asleep’s’ ‘Bury A Friend’. Meanwhile the title-track is a near-career best for Eilish that signals a promising path forward; a five minute epic that evolves from a quiet, acoustic cut to booming, cathartic alt-rock-meets-punk-pop greatness. On the contrary, some of ‘Happier Than Ever’s’ best moments are also it’s most understated (see: ‘Your Power’, ‘Halley’s Comet’).
There are no moments on ‘Happier Than Ever’ quite as definitive as ‘Bad Guy’ or ‘When The Party’s Over’, but there are plenty that prove Eilish to still be a singular talent; ‘Therefore I Am’ is a dark-pop banger; the closest companion to ‘Bad Guy’ here; that in the course of under three minutes manages to quote Rene Decartes and dismiss haters with breath-taking ease. ‘Oxytocin’ – as it’s title would suggest – is the most sensual, steamy track Eilish has ever put her name to and it feels almost pre-destined to accompany countless TV and film sex scenes. While ‘NDA’ – a track about the horrifying downsides of becoming mega-famous as a teenager, that references multiple tracks here – is as disarming as it is alarming (“You hit me so hard / I saw stars”). ‘Halley’s Comet’, meanwhile, is one of the most beautiful ballads of 2021; a meditation on the hopelessness of love, and closer ‘Male Fantasy’ is at once a powerful reflection on sexism and the male gaze (“Distract myself with pornography / I hate the way she looks at me / I can’t stand the dialogue, she would never be / That satisfied, it’s a male fantasy”) and a mental health confessional (“I worry this is how I’m always gonna feel”).
So then, does Billie Eilish avoid the sophomore slump with ‘Happier Than Ever’? Well, the project is a slight step down from it’s predecessor, but it’s still packed with reminders of her greatness. As Eilish herself has said with characteristic frankness (“eat my dust my tits are bigger than yours“) ‘Happier Than Ever’ is no flop.
Best Tracks: ‘Your Power’, ‘Happier Than Ever’, ‘NDA’, ‘Therefore I Am’, ‘Halley’s Comet’, ‘Oxytocin’
Worst Track: Everybody Dies