I’m hardly privy to all the information I would need to definitely determine why Billie Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, became an outright sensation. It’s sold more than four million copies to date, true blockbuster levels under current music-industry metrics, and propelled Eilish to the forefront of cultural discourse. The album is damn good, so there’s that. There’s something more, though. While professionally polished, Eilish’s songs flowed with a casualness that accentuated their candor. It’s not for nothing that the throwaway “Duh!” on “Bad Guy” became the signature moment of the album, a verbal tic that contained the whole philosophy of Gen Z’s fortified disillusionment and impatience with the human nuisances preventing them from living unbothered lives. I don’t think Eilish set out to be the voice of a generation. She landed there by speaking her experience truthfully.
It makes sense, then, that Happier Than Ever extends the creative mission. Beset by levels of attention she couldn’t have imagined, Eilish writes directly about the whirlwind of experiencing sudden fame. On the razor-edge-tense “NDA,” she sings, “30 Under 30 for another year/ I can barely go outside, I think I hate it here/ Maybe I should think about a new career/ Somewhere in Kauai where I can disappear.” If the average listener can’t relate to some of the song’s particulars — buying a house while still a teenager, hiring security — the raw dissatisfaction conveyed is universal. Similarly, “Not My Responsibility” is clearly a direct response to some of the public debate about Eilish’s physicality and wardrobe choices that she’s rightly bucked against (“Some people hate what I wear/ Some people praise it/ Some people use it to shame others/ Some people use it to shame me”), but firsthand experience with paparazzi isn’t a requirement to relate to what she’s saying. I suspect practically every girl who’s suffered through needlessly judgmental school dress codes and unwanted attention from males — and is there any girl in our culture who’s excluded from that group — feels the angry honesty of Eilish’s words (“If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman/ If I shed the layers, I’m a slut”) down to the core of their weary soul.
The barbed lyrics persist throughout the album. The title cut has a sound like a welling storm of earned fury (“Do you read my interviews?/ Or do you skip my avenue?/ When you said you were passing through/ Was I even on your way?”) fueled further by thunderclaps of distortion, and “Your Power” is smooth and prickly at the same time. Part of the built-in authenticity to the album in the way Eilish frames these experiences in the personal and the jargon of now rather than the language of pop songs. “I Didn’t Change My Number” opens with the Eilish proclaiming, “I didn’t change my number/ I only changed who I reply to,” and it’s like a front page news report.
For all the snap of its music, Happier Than Ever is arguably most fascinating in the surprising tones of its music. At a point when Eilish could put a lockdown on the top of charts by leaning into her poppier instincts, she instead (with her brother and chief creative collaborator, Finneas) skews most of the album in a different direction, emphasizing a smoother side of her self. “Billie Bossa Nova” is just what it promises, all jazzy cool, and “Lost Cause” is a laid-back soul putdown, like TLC if they were drifting off in a nap. When other performers would instinctively grab their listeners by the collar and yank them in, Eilish lays back, knowing others are ready to lean in and meet her where she’s at. She shows remarkable confidence and fortitude in that choice. Eilish’s first album made her a star. Happier Than Ever is a powerhouse reassertion that her real identity is an artist.