OCTOBER: Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

This album is currently or has been number one in over 20 countries. Eilish is genuine, bona fide A list pop star – she sits alongside the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas at the top table. Her clothes, her love life, her age, her gender, her fanbase, her lyrics and her career in general have all been dissected over and over again by the press and also by her fans. This is an album about what that feels like. Perhaps that’s not so strange – plenty of of pop stars have sung about life in the fast lane. But what is strange is what Happier Than Ever represents. Eilish is a pop star who makes pop music. You all know I’ll defend the P word to my death. But what extraordinarily INTERESTING place pop music has gone in the last decade or so. Sure, it’s been heading that way for quite a while – but it’s certainly a long way from the Pussycat Dolls and Girls Aloud to this album. It’s the total antidote to those artists. It’s not manufactured, there is no ‘persona’ that Eilish appears to hide behind, and the entire album is not written by a team of crack songwriters, with a list of producers as long as the tracklist. The whole thing, from songwriting to production, was made by Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas. Not a single other musician plays on the entire album.

So if it’s not pop in the old-fashioned sense, then what is it? Well – Happier Than Ever is intimate, downbeat, incredibly personal, political, angry, frustrated, passionate, world-weary, poetic, sexy, goofy and funny. And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s also as tightly constructed as a piece of Swiss watch-making, and it has the best sequencing of any album I’ve heard this year. I’ve tried to find flaws, but dammit, I’m having to look very hard. In short, it is FUCKING AMAZING.

What’s really interesting is what a rich, satisfying listen this is despite the aural palette of the album not really being that wide. Songs tend to come in two flavours – the first is somewhere between synth ballad and pastoral folk (Getting Older, Billie Bossa Nova, Everybody Dies) and sultry, stripped-back grooves with a hint of darkness and even foreboding (I Didn’t Change My Number, Lost Cause, Oxycontin). It’s hardly an upbeat album, but it certainly feels like a more mature and emotionally diverse offering than her first record, brilliant though her debut was by anyone’s standards. So why does this palette work so well on this record? Because it’s a journey. Because each song is a perfect, self-contained composition that’s been crafted beautifully – but then sequenced on a record that takes us through a giant walk through Eilish’s life right now.

We kick off with Getting Older, a rumination on what she’s about to explore through the album – how she can see herself growing, where she’s finding self doubt, trying to process the things that have already happened to her – and then suddenly ending with the bullet of the last extraordinary couplet –

I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna
Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time

And then she does. A toxic (former?) relationship in I Didn’t Change My Number – which she returns to in the title track Happier Than Ever; a secret new relationship on Billie Bossa Nova that’s then referenced again in the incredible NDA, then a beautiful act of self-love and hope in My Future (one of the highlights on the album for me). On we go through lust (Oxycontin), before we really get into the meet of the record – Eilish confronting the abuse that is endemic in the industry. She touches on this repeatedly in Goldwing and the angry, brilliant Your Power. I’m trying to imagine a pop album 10 or 20 years ago that could have a track like Everybody Dies, a song that genuinely explores the fear of death. Sound of the Underground it ain’t.

And then there’s the album’s mid point, a moment turns the question right at the listener on Not My Responsibility do you know me? Really know me? Of course we don’t, despite her sharing herself right in front of us. She lays it out. This is what it feels like to be judged constantly. Would you like me to be quiet? There are plenty of artists exploring the notions of what its like to a woman in this universe, but honestly, I don’t think anyone is working at this level. That’s another thing we should discuss – the lyrics. They’re consistently brilliant, sharp, funny – they elevate the already gorgeously constructed melodies into a miniature portrait of entire story, time and time again.

So how come this downbeat, at times almost folky album doesn’t come over like Taylor Swift’s Folklore? I think the simple answer is that Eilish isn’t using the genre as a crutch to create something slightly artificial. Swift – who I actually really like – always feels like she’s calculated her every more down to the last carefully arranged artfully hung woollen cardigan. Eilish feels like this is the music that’s in her head and has come out of her mouth. The lack of gap between her work and the listener is surely one of the reasons this works so well.

Finally, a word on the production. It’s genius. Those hypnotic synths, that slightly narcotic quality to the washed-out electronic sounds. And then Billie’s voice itself – so close to your ears, it’s like she’s whispering into them. I wonder if she’s used that same crazy Binaural head mic that Perfume Genius used on No Shape. It reminds me hugely of that intimacy mixed with very emotional electronica. God it’s good.

Something to share as we think about our response to this record….For some reason, YouTube’s not allowing me to embed any of the songs from album – but it is allowing to embed this extraordinary conversation below – ‘When Billie Met Stormzy’. Apart from it being a total joy to watch two such engaging stars who clearly have such a love for each other’s work (in particularly, Stormzy fanboying over Eilish is just gorgeous), it’s fascinating to see two artists recognise the other’s care and craft in their work. They’re not where they are by accident. They’re both so talented, they’re almost freakishly so by normal human standards. So it’s easy to think that Eilish might not be the real thing because she’s so young or that she’s secretly propped up a production team. The opposite is of course true, as this interview reminds us – she got signed when she was 14 because she is just INSANELY talented.

Happier Than Ever is, by surely anyone’s definition, one of the albums of the year. Indeed, it might well be my album of the year. I mean, what else could really be this well-realised, this articulate, this full of incredible song, giant hooks, intimate whispers?

Man, I’m overheated, can’t be defeated
Can’t be deleted, can’t un-believe it.

We’d better believe it. Bille Eilish is here to stay for a long time. This is only the next step on her journey, but what a fucking step it is.

6 thoughts on “OCTOBER: Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

  1. I don’t even know where to start with this one. I don’t think I’ve ever responded as positively as quickly to an album like ever. Is it perfect? It’s pretty bloody close.

    I echo everything that’s been said other than ‘folksy’ comment, i see it more as ‘jazz-ballady’ if that’s a thing but we’re splitting hairs there. I agree on the types of songs on the album … but the tracks sit so well together it’s amazing. It almost shouldn’t sound as coherent as it does. The sequencing of the tracks is impeccable with my only question being that ‘Male Fantasy’ feels a little lost following the 5 minute emotional rollercoaster/rocker-fist-clenched-power-break-up title track. But again, these are small personal things and nothing that I am going to lose any sleep about.

    You’re right about the production too. It’s outstanding. It’s the best produced album I’ve heard in years. Billie’s vocals sound incredible. On every track. Breathy. Real. Double tracked. Triple tracked. On the title track I think there’s about 20 Billie’s singing and screaming with heart stopping perfection.

    I love that this is her and her brother. Nobody else. I love that they wrote it and recorded it before the record label even started asking for it. This means that they’re in full control. From start to finish. That is something magic.

    I’ve got loads more to say but will do that on the pod.

    I love this album. That’s clear right?

    1. Nah, it didn’t really come across.

      I’m fascinated by how you both went for it big time from the off.

      It’s taken me a while to get into it: the old ‘feels’ conundrum, but as ever headphones and lyrics we’re the key for me. Like Genesis (ha) it felt a bit long at first but really it’s pretty perfectly programmed.

      Looking forward to this discussion. A lot.

  2. That’s some write up brother @davidhallison. It says so much about how I feel about this album that I’m going to need to work out what else I can say!

    I’m starting to finally get into its clutches, behind you and @misterstory but I’ll echo the lyrics and production are pretty amazing.

    Feels like it’s pushed the boundaries of pop for everyone else to catch up.

  3. I had started one of my essays on this, to add a bit of meat to the bone but it didn’t really flow so I’m saving for when I’ve collected my thoughts better. Instead I’m going to do a @misterstory and go for the numbers:

    1. I’m filing this 100% in the ‘I really wasn’t convinced at first’ pile with the Weather Station and others. It wasn’t because I felt I had to like it but I had no reference point, and also it was so accessible, and welcoming to just wash over you it took ages to have the time and headspace (I blame work and life) to connect with it. As ever, it was the headphones and lyrics thing, but more than that. For ages I felt like it wasn’t aimed at me and that was fine. But of course, music isn’t bothered who you are.

    2. It was accessible, yes, but it’s only after some real headphones time that you realise the detail and subtly to the production. Yes, there’s some great – and simple – melodies and arrangements, but there’s beauty in the little touches. The album was – I believe – made pretty much in Logic with some guitars, but while it’s a very modern sound, it’s not polished to within an inch of its life, and it really lets Eilish’s vocals thrive. They’re so soft and vulnerable at times, but the harmonies they weave together often show that you don’t need to sing loud to have power. And there’s real scope – from the Bossa Nova of the third track, the guitar-neo soul of My Future, the club banger size of Oxytocin, the Bond-theme opera of Everybody Dies, the Timbaland-feel NDA that morphs into a EDM-tinged pop banger, Happier Than Ever’s 90s college rock swagger and the Bon Iver-ish closer. This isn’t comparison as flattery, they each stand their ground on their own, but it’s only when you listen individually you realise the ambition of what many have called a pretty downbeat record. I disagree strongly with that sentiment (unless it’s compared to a few specific previous tracks) and a testament to the programming that it all works so seamlessly.

    3. It’s staggering it’s just Billie and Finneas. And that’s not condescending at all, it’s that it’s such a brilliant piece of work that it’s the sort of thing that is focus-grouped to death, scrutinised, reworked, re-written, 5 producers, all that usual major label bullshit that squeezes all the individuality out of an artist. ironically, this is on Interscope, which is part of the Universal behemoth. So you wonder that if this wasn’t borne out of lockdown and the pair being able to collaborate in relative isolation, what would’ve happened? I am pretty fearful of that really. But all the more incredible it’s been able to happen like this.

    4. Lyrically, it’s a pretty amazing record. My current knowledge and experience of Billie Eilish up to now was more around the circus that followed her round (not from reading the rags, thank you) and seeing on music press, social media etc all the shitstorms that would happen literally because of a piece of clothing or haircut she’d have. It was a deeply depressing situation, one that probably pulled me away from listening to the music, which I regret. But looking at all that’s happened to her, and how she takes so much of it head on in this record is pretty mindblowing. Of course, it would be easy for records about checking into luxury hotels under assumed names, being chased by paps and the crushing nature of fame to feel utterly disconnected, but it’s somehow relatable, and inclusive, because of course the themes are much wider than her life. The objectification of women, the persecution of them, growing up in an adult world as effectively a kid. Right form the opening track there’s a sadness about ‘getting older’ being sung by a 19-year old, but there’s also a positivity running through the album – much like Arlo’s before it – as aide from the romantic wreckage there’s a growing comfort in her skin, hope on the future, and confidence in batting back so much of the shit that lands in her life. Adding to the pressure of following up her debut and how she’s talked about things – taking Not My Responsibility as a prime example – and taking the initiative, I am in awe of it all.

    5. Mainly I’m pretty amazed that pop music can be this great, and that’s sitting in a potential golden age of new music at the moment where the variety and quality is daft when I think about what was around when I was a kid. The fact that an artist this big can make an album this good on their own terms is a real gauntlet to throw down to what is some serious competition.

    So there. That’s my stream of consciousness for tomorrow!

  4. Great write up brother David…. and the reactions so far. I think we can all agree it’s a special album.

    I’m continually blown away by Billie Eilish. Who she is, what she does, how she does everything. She’s 19. She’s been making mature songs since she was 13. It blows my mind on a daily basis. She is such a force in what she does and how she connects with such a wide audience.

    We talk a lot about first songs and how they set the tone; Getting Older does this to perfection. There are hints to her debut album and foreshadows the second. Rolling Stone explained this album as hyper modern, whilst being classic. I think that sums this album up well.

    I must confess, I’m a big fan of Billie Eilish, as are Hayley and the aids. Hayley in particular has been hooked since her first single. Her first album was a rollercoaster from end to end of varied emotional goodness for the ears. A friend of mine that works for the record label she’s on posted a video of her debut at Glastonbury when she had just broken into the UK charts. The 10 second clip was electric, it still excites me thinking about it. Billie Eilish is a bonafide, phenomenal talent. She’s the real deal, the full package.

    The rise of Billie Eilish excites me and concerns me evenly. How can any human cope with the eyes of the word on you constantly. Pulling you apart at every step when we should be celebrating her at every step? Not My Responsibility is haunting. It saddens me to think that the people she wrote that song for will never hear it, and if they do it most likely with never penetrate. It was he first song that gave me shivers, though the more you delve into the lyrics of each of the songs on the album there is a lot to digest.

    There’s much to be said about the sister and brother collaboration when it comes to the music of Billie Eilish. I love their bond and how it works its way into the songs that they write.

    Following up on everything that has been discussed, it’s hard me to add anything new with the exception of curation of this album. The flow is phenomenal. from over all track order to the well constructed pauses when needed between songs and the quick transition when warranted. The build in song order, the slow down and the emotional ride sonically is arguably the best flow to an album that I have listened to in recent time.

    What an album…. I can’t wait to discuss it on the pod.

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