After a unanimously lauded debut album like, say, Billie Eilish’s 2019 Grammy-sweeping hit When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, the pressure and anticipation that surely precedes a new release is unfathomable to the average person. This, by way of broader commentary on the dark side of fame, is the foremost theme of Eilish’s sophomore album, Happier Than Ever.
Released on Friday, Happier Than Ever marks a sonic and thematic departure from its predecessor. But don’t be fooled by the name. Billie fans who felt seen by the teen’s refusal to shy away from candidly sharing the darkest aspects of her psyche will still find emotional comfort in the way she articulates feelings you didn’t even know you had (and does so damn beautifully). The 16-track album is as sombre and emotionally honest as Eilish’s debut. In fact, it even trades some of the playfulness of the first album, which shone through in sudden throaty giggles and jokes with the singer’s brother-slash-producer, Finneas, for a tone that straddles the line between wistful and jaded.
Nineteen years old now and having been thrust into stratospheric fame at 15, Eilish has learned enough about the world to be skeptical. She has been loved and been in love. She is angry, she is longing, she is sure of herself. Throughout the album’s 56 minutes, she careens through emotions that will be familiar to anyone who has felt what it’s like to be a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, even if the exact circumstances she describes—having to check into hotels under a fake name and asking a guy to sign an NDA post-hook-up—are totally unfamiliar.
There are a few fleeting moments that call back to the sound of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The second track, “I Didn’t Change My Number,” startles by opening with a distorted, synthy roar. There’s the occasional mumbled interlude as Eilish asks Finneas a question or cracks a joke, immediately transporting the listener to the cramped bedroom in their parents’ house where the gifted siblings recorded their first album.
But for the most part, Eilish charts new territory sonically on Happier Than Ever. It’s more low-key, more melancholy and contemplative. The strum of acoustic guitar somewhat shockingly pops up on at least two tracks (though it does not linger). On “Billie Bossa Nova,” however, the singer proves that she’s still down to have fun, with clever lyrics about navigating a relationship as a star over a retro beat that is more likely to remind her Gen Z fans of a vlog montage than 1960s samba music. The upbeat earworm “Oxytocin” sees the singer trying out a techno sound paired with vocals reminiscent of Karen O during her Yeah Yeah Yeahs era.
Signaling the second half of the album, a spoken word piece titled “Not My Responsibility” serves as a sort of intermission. True fans will recognize the rage-inflected words as a monologue Eilish delivered as she stripped down at a concert in Miami last March (just before the world shut down due to COVID-19). “You have opinions about my opinions. About my music. About my clothes. About my body,” she declares, “Some people hate what I wear. Some people praise it. Some people use it to shame others. Some people use it to shame me.”
The piece is an indictment and a reclamation, building up to the moment when Eilish declares that other people’s deeply misogynistic opinions are not her responsibility. It is an aural companion piece to her British Vogue cover, for which she shed her signature neon hair and baggy clothes, once meant to deter the gross sexualization endured by young female artists, for pinup-inspired blonde curls and a corset. But underneath the empowerment, there’s a more unsettling takeaway. “I feel you watching, always, and nothing I do goes unseen,” she says. Since 2019, Eilish has swapped nightmares of ink-black tears and stapled tongues for the maddening claustrophobia of constant scrutiny.
In spite of the still-present darkness Billie’s fans have come to know and love, and the deceptive meaning behind the titular track, which is about a failed relationship, Happier Than Ever does seem to represent a shift towards a more self-aware and self-assured version of the artist. On the first track, lyrical standout “Getting Older,” she sings, “I’m getting older / I’ve got more on my shoulders / But I’m getting better at admitting when I’m wrong / I’m happier than ever, at least that’s my endeavor.” She may not be completely happy all the time (and who really is?), but she’s not afraid to seek—no, demand—what she deserves.