Saturday, July 31, 2021

Billie Eilish’s latest album, ‘Happier than Ever’ - A masterpiece of style, emotions, and vulnerability

Billie Eilish’s latest album, ‘Happier Than Ever’ was just released on July 30th. With a variety of sounds, genres, and influences, this album shows Billie and brother/producer, FINNEAS’ ability to create a story filled with emotion and philosophy. In this way, ‘Happier Than Ever’ shows that the art of the album is alive and well, and it features some of the most vulnerable moments in Billie’s career.

Part of the magic of this album is the role that genre plays. From the aptly-named ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ to the harder rock track that ‘Happier Than Ever’ becomes to all of the electronic pop, club-like tracks throughout, this album will keep listeners engaged and emotionally invested in what feels like the perfectly curated listening experience. In this way, genre is key. 

With streaming being so pervasive in the music industry, many people don’t listen to music in categories. Now, a listener could easily go from listening to Brahm’s Requiem to Abba without skipping a beat. I know I listen to music this way. This album is an embodiment of this idea.

Now, I listened to this album on Spotify. There, you can find “Storyline” at the bottom of the track’s play screen. Here, Billie gives a few words on the track that you’re listening to at that moment. I HIGHLY suggest listening to the album while reading these. It always heightens the listening experience knowing what the writer and artist feel, and Billie is incredible when it comes to expression and explaining her art.

Throughout this review, you’ll find that I reference these “Storyline” writings a lot. They help to strengthen the impact of this already strong and intimate album. And now, the beginning.

Starting with ‘Getting Older,’ I was immediately struck by the intimacy of the sound. I also notice an almost Beatles-like chord progression and style of writing melody. This, with Billie’s characteristically realistic and insightful lyrics, makes for a beautiful start to the album. It lets you warm up to the masterpiece. Billie says, “This was a tough song to write because of how honest it is.” And I believe this is true, with the chorus singing, “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now.” It would seem that Billie is looking back on her career thus far and is contemplating all of that time. Keeping the energy pretty low, the listener is drawn in throughout this track.

The second track acts almost like a foundation for another sound that is prevalent throughout the album. ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’ has a cool groove, almost like a lounge type of feel. With a rhythmic and glitchy synth throughout and Billie’s classic sliding harmonies and incredible backing vocals, this one is about being honest and true to herself in a bad situation with someone. A shorter track, this feels like this is just a moment to portray to her audience. A total vibe.

Okay. I’m obsessed with ‘Billie Bossa Nova.’ Billie writes, “A secret fling. A fantasy.” You’ll find that the sound of this has a dream-like feel to it. Stylistically, I believe this is an incredibly innovative song. It of course has that Bossa Nova feel, but it’s totally in Billie’s way with her type of progression writing and FINNEAS’ production.

Moving into the single ‘my future,’ Billie says, “It’s nice to think about what the future holds for yourself.” This track holds a wonderful place in the album with Billie showing some of her most expressive vocals. Another example of the excellent writing that this duo can come up with both in general and with the backup vocals that are such a huge part of Billie’s sound.

The next track bumps up the energy. On ‘Oxytocin,’ Billie says, “We wanted to make a song that could be really fun to perform live.” Listening to this here, you can definitely see that it has the energy for a festival, stand-alone concert, anything. It’s cool to hear the more yell-like singing and the live-reverb-sounding vocals. And, I’m pretty sure I hear FINNEAS in some of the backup vocals of this track. This song makes for another vibe and has an atmosphere to bathe and splash in.

GOLDWING’ sticks out to me. It starts with this very choral sound, sounding like much of the contemporary choral works being written today. Given Billie and FINNEAS’ background in choral music, it makes sense that the vocal arrangement would be incredible on this song which makes for another addition to the variety of sound on this album. However, they take it further when a little less than halfway through, the choral vocals get chopped up and form this intense groove, similar to something you’d hear in a movie when the suspense is building. This is a fleeting track though and quickly moves to ‘Lost Cause.’

On ‘Lost Cause,’ Billie says, “The lyrics say it all.” We know from this single’s earlier release that they definitely do. This song was clearly meant to be direct and the writing (especially the bass line) lends itself to that idea. This song is a great juxtaposition to the prior track ‘GOLDWING.’

The next track, ‘Halley’s Comet,’ is a beautifully written piano-lead ballad-like song “about falling in love” which Billie says is “a scary, annoying thing.” This song serves as a beautiful reminder of Billie and FINNEAS’ way of being able to write unique and refreshing chord progressions in the world of pop music. This sentimental piece speaks to Billie’s maturing since her last major release, which we all go through in our lives multiple times. Finally, there’s a transition at the end of this song and you get an almost mini song that seems a bit like a lo-fi song “to study/relax to.” This cute melody is just as emotional as the material that came before it.

After the halfway point of the album, we get ‘Not My Responsibility.’ This is a spoken-word track featuring, according to Billie, “some of my favorite words I’ve written.” By this point in the album, it’s clear that there’s a certain theme in the sound of this album, going back and forth between these futuristic club sounds and emotional, heart-tugs. All are intimate and personal and meaningful, but they all have their own identity. In this particular moment though, we see that Billie wants to be direct in her message. She discusses criticism against her and people in general. It’s a glimpse into her perspective of her fame, her reputation. As she continues, she seems to be contemplating huge social problems about gender rights and the toxic culture around how society views women’s bodies and body shaming. She’s clear that her point is that other people’s reaction to her is “not her responsibility.” This almost sounds like the dark part of a documentary on social issues we face today. In this way, perfectly soundtracked. More poetry than lyrics.

OverHeated’ is directly related to ‘Not My Responsibility’ with Billie saying “We took the production from ’Not My Responsibility’ and made it into a beat. Interpret the lyrics how you will.” You can see that this track took material from the last song and expanded on it. I also like that Billie lets her lyrics speak for themselves. She’s confident in how they’ll be perceived. With cool vocal synths, a consistent drumbeat, and building energy, it’s highly suggested that this song is listened to with ‘Not My Responsibility’ right before. Also, for any music nerds out there, I noticed a few moments throughout the album that sounded bitonal. It’s a cool characteristic to bring to pop music. You can hear what I mean towards the end of this track.

The next track stands out to me and I feel like people are going to relate to it on some level, no matter what. Billie describes ‘Everybody Dies’ as “happy and sad at the same time.” This is a beautiful idea. Endings and dying are bittersweet when you look at it from a slightly more objective point of view. It’s hard, beautiful, heartbreaking, and completely normal. In this way, this song expresses something hard to come to terms with sometimes. I even remember the first time I ever thought about it. It’s a big moment in your life, whether you think about it or not. I think we go through life sometimes trying to ignore or forget this idea for as long as we can and I equate this to Billie’s lyrics “I sure have a knack for seeing life more like a child,” “Even when it’s time, you might not want to go, but it’s okay to cry,” and “You are not alone.” This is an intimate reminder from Billie.

The next three tracks were singles released before the album. With ‘Your Power,’ Billie writes about how personal this song is for her and her hope that “all young women who have been taken advantage of feel heard.” Coming after the large theme of death and the musical intimacy of ‘Everybody Dies,’ we come back to our society’s problems in this already well-known single.

With ’NDA,’ it’s cool to hear how Billie and FINNEAS use auto-tune in this song as an instrument in the swells of this track. And then, ‘Therefore I Am’ comes in with a similar sound to Billie’s last album. Billie always has a unique sound and way of putting her musical ideas down. This track has a lot of characteristics with her earlier work and it’s cool to see that in this album. It’s so cool to finally see what these singles sound like amidst the rest of the album.

Coming to the end of the album, ‘Happier Than Ever’ is another track with an intimate start. With a slightly de-tuned acoustic guitar and telephoned vocals, this is another track with some lo-fi influence. It works with the subject matter and aesthetic that is so rampant in music right now. Billie and FINNEAS know how to do this in a pop setting. And of course, more of their excellent chord progressions. In the middle of this track, we switch to a more electric sound. This transition reminds me so much of The Beatles, and still later in the electric guitar’s sound. In the second half here, the song’s energy blows up into what sounds like the album coming to an end. Billie getting the words out that she says she needed to get out for a while. This track features a more live rock concert sound than Billie has typically employed. I don’t think this is without its meaning. Screams in the background, distorted guitars, Billie and FINNEAS know how to use genre as a message. Billie says, “This is the most therapeutic song I’ve ever written. I screamed my lungs out when we recorded this song. I’ve wanted to get those screams out for a long time.”

The last song, ‘Male Fantasy’ has a simple acoustic sound. I was immediately reminded a bit of Clairo. Conceptually, this song seems to take a deep look into how she reacts to things around her. And in the end, that’s all we can really control: our reaction to what goes on around us. Everybody dies and stuff happens that we can’t control. That isn’t inherently bad or good, it just is. So we might as well try to enjoy ourselves. Like Billie says, “Nothing should end on an angry note.” This is at least how I, as a listener, takes this as the ending to the album. And I’m sure it says a lot for Billie to end this song and album unresolved. She says, “This is exactly how I wanted the album to end.”

Happier Than Ever’ can accurately be described as a masterpiece. Every song can stand on its own, and yet together, the album’s delivery is perfect. Billie explores things on the personal level, social issues, and even goes into philosophical ideas about death and how we deal with things. I have a hard time believing anyone would be disappointed with this latest Billie Eilish release.

Christian Koller


Image: Official Album Artwork

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