Sep 15, 2021
By Michael Watkins
Has there been a more anticipated sophomore pop release than Happier Than Ever since Adele’s 21? It’s a real struggle to think of one, such was the gargantuan reception and hype to Billie Eilish’s debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (which is stylized in all caps). Released in 2019, it catapulted the then 17-year-old Eilish onto the world stage. It debuted at the top of charts around the world, including the Billboard 200. It gave Eilish the springboard to go on two world tours, her Glastonbury set was moved to a bigger stage, and, by year-end, had sold more than 1.2 million copies at a time when people can access music for free.
She wasn’t an overnight success. She and her brother Finneas O’Connell (aka FINNEAS)—who produced and co-wrote WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP—had been steadily releasing music for years in the lead up to this. But, when it came to the 62nd Grammys, held in January 2020, Eilish’s place in history was secured. She became only the second artist in history to sweep the board in the top four categories—Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist.
The prospect of following this up, you’d assume, would weigh heavily on Eilish. Her debut album was a cultural phenomenon in an era when it sometimes seems like more is written about the apparent “death” of the album than new releases themselves. But, on Happier Than Ever, released as the world begins to slowly emerge from the grip and recesses of a global pandemic, there is no trace of this at all.
Instead, what we have here is a confident and well-crafted record which, in some truly startling ways, outdoes its predecessor. Overall, it’s a more solid and even album. Its progression and the fluidity of the journey from track to track is much more natural and, thus, easy to navigate. Working from a palette of hushed electronic sounds and an attitude to vocals that blurs the lines between singing and ASMR, Happier Than Ever boasts a tapestry of tracks that get to the central crux of what it is to be a teenager in the modern era.
Whilst, as an album, Happier Than Ever is a more cohesive piece of work than Eilish’s debut, it has come at a slight cost. Nowhere here are there songs, let alone singles, that can rival the best moments of the more uneven WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP. There is no “bad guy,” “bury a friend,” or “you should see me in a crown.” There are great songs for sure—“Oxytocin” and the previously released “Therefore I Am” stick out as its most obvious and endearing highlights—but there is the sense that these don’t quite have the ability to become the gargantuan singles that she has produced in the past.
How much of that is intentional is difficult to tell, and it certainly isn’t a bad thing that an artist of still such a remarkable age—Eilish won’t turn 20 until December this year—has taken a stance in favor of the album over the single. As those who have been decrying the end of the longer form for decades will doubtless attest to, there seem to be fewer artists of Eilish’s influence who see the release of new material in this way. So, whilst it may not boast songs that stick with you for months in the way that Eilish’s first does, Happier Than Ever feels like a project that will age more gracefully and, in years to come, it may even come to eclipse that which came before it. (www.billieeilish.com)
Author rating: 7.5/10
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