Happier Than Ever Is Billie Eilish’s Brilliantly Dark Fame Diary

This July, Billie Eilish released her highly anticipated second LP, Happier Than Ever. After some contention as to who would review this release, AnalogPlanet editor Michael Fremer and contributing editor Malachi Lui agreed to both comment on it. Below is their conversation about the record.

Malachi Lui: Last month, Billie Eilish released her highly-anticipated second album Happier Than Ever. Many of us remember her utterly unescapable (at least where I lived, that's not at all hyperbole!) 2019 debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?; did you have any pre-release expectations for this second LP? I liked the first record’s very unique and dark style, but found the early Happier Than Ever singles unimpressive. I didn't expect this album to be much different than the first.

Michael Fremer: Honestly, I didn’t engage with the first record. She wasn’t really on my radar and I think I was prejudiced against her because it seemed like the same route to stardom as Justin Bieber took (YouTube, or in this case SoundCloud) and today’s “pop” music really doesn’t do much for me now just as it didn’t in the early '60s when Fabian and Frankie Avalon, etc. were the pre-concocted “teen pop stars”, which is how I think of Bieber, et al. So I had no expectations for the second album, which I think was good because with no expectations when I got it and started listening to it, it knocked me out. And if a second album is much like the first, an artist is probably done; one needn’t hear the first to know that the second is different.

ML: Interesting point, though I felt it was clear from the beginning that she had a different style than most pop stars (at least in that post-dont smile at me, pre-WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP era). She’s signed to a major label, yes, but her presentation (including her ever-changing fashion choices, which in that era was baggy designer clothes and neon green accessories) wasn't that of the typical hyper-manufactured teen pop stars (though of course, a major label deal means that her rise wasn't completely “organic”). Her clear artistic identity, a strong fanbase, and her vivid lyrical content (mental health, suicide, climate change, etc) was far more mature than previous teen pop stars. Her brother Finneas O’Connell’s production took all sorts of bizarre (for pop music, that is) twists and turns, removing from the narrative the usual “creatively restricting pop hitmaker.”

MF: Yes, of course! But you’d have to have been paying attention from the start (which you were and I wasn’t) to get all of that! I’m late to it but the catch up is easy. Of course I saw her get-ups and appreciated her “success while being covered” in an era of strip tease, burlesque-style pop stardom. All of what you say is true now that I’ve gone back and listened to the first album and the dont smile at me EP. Some things remain consistent though, including her generally aggressive approach to relationships. The Rolling Stones sang a song called “Stupid Girl.” Back then no female artists I can think of had a song called “Stupid Boy” or a song dumping on a former boyfriend. Most of the girl songs were about longing or about having a broken heart. The girls were the “dumped.” Billie Eilish gets downright mean. She’s the one in control.

Now that I've absorbed the first album, it’s got a wider range of ideas and subjects in part because she’s a precocious teen painting on a blank slate at an age when very little is settled. She sang about relationships but at a time when she might not have had a very serious one. Much of what she sings about on the first record are likely more fictional stories than reflections on reality though there are the usual “Gen Z teens sitting in a room thinking about life” songs about drugs (“xanny”), rejection (“wish you were gay”), suicide (“bury a friend”) etc. She’s more vulnerable on the first album, that’s for sure!

Billie and Finneas are quite a team because his production is economical, ingenious and wide-ranging. To my audiophile ears these are audiophile recordings so it’s not surprising to read that both of them are hi-fi advocates (they appeared in an ad for Spotify’s upcoming lossless audio tier). I love that!

ML: We'll get to the sound quality later, but your mention of Eilish controlling her narrative is a great way to start talking about this second album. What really stands out about this record is that she's not only commenting on the pressures of success, but using her platform to say a lot of important things. Even though there aren't songs like “listen before i go” or “bury a friend,” the lyrical content is somehow even darker. There are a lot of lyrics about failed (to say the least) relationships, stalkers, body shaming, sexual abuse, and fame. Happier Than Ever's opening track “Getting Older” sums it all up; she puts all of it in front of the listener, and her vocal performance communicates so much pain.

MF: I’d say that her incredible success is what controlled the second album's narrative. She grabbed the proverbial “tiger by the tail” and it took her for a ride. She couldn’t have repeated the first album or moved it slightly forward because it wouldn’t have been credible. The second album’s cover and title brilliantly reacts to the “what now?” question. The cover is simultaneously tragic and comedic as is the subject matter of some of the songs. The opener is like a diary entry. In fact, the entire album is like a series of diary entries as is the vocal energy and tone. You don’t need a physical set to imagine her sitting alone in her room absorbed by the “WTF just happened to me?” reaction to her life changing success. To have ignored it would have produced a false note follow up album particularly because of how she achieved success, which was "home grown,” despite being signed to a major label. If there were strings pulled by the record business “star machine,” they were well hidden.

She’s putting it all in front of her. The listener is eavesdropping. That’s what I most like about the second album. The bigger she gets the smaller her voice. She doesn’t fall into the “I’m a big star” trap. “Getting Older” is self-reflection and assessment putting the past behind her. “Things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed now.” Wow, can I relate! [laughs] Though to be honest I still enjoy what’s keeping me employed. I kind of felt sorry for her when I heard that. She sure got to that point quickly! It took only one album. That opening song is bold and honest. And one didn’t have to even know a song from the first album to get it.

ML: Happier Than Ever indeed feels like a series of diary entries, and its brutal honesty makes it so special. Most albums that deal with fame, even ones that tackle its dark side, are full of superstar excess. While there is a small bit of that (“NDA”), Billie portrays herself as a relatively normal person who suddenly has the responsibility of being a public figure. In “Everybody Dies” she sings, “It's just a lot to think about the world I'm used to/The one I can't get back, at least not for a while.” In other words, this is her “fame sucks” record. In some ways, it works; she's grappling with this meteoric rise that is especially difficult in the internet age. Other times, the contrasts between her flipping off an ex and talking about her fame feel abrupt, and sometimes her unsympathetic attitude towards that (those?) ex[es?] feels like she's using her fame as a tool to push him/them away. But overall, she strikes the balance well. My biggest issue with this record is how when she tries to say the most, the music kind of bores. Songs like “Your Power” and “Male Fantasy” are extremely important lyrically, though to shine a light on the vocals, the musical backing (strummed acoustic guitars on both songs) feels lackluster.

MF: It’s a tricky endeavor to not sound like “oh poor me I got what I always wanted and now it sucks.” People don’t appreciate that. I like that she abruptly shifts gears. That’s what I expect from an unsure kid who’s achieved so much so quickly yet is still dealing with all of the normal teen crap. I think the strummed acoustic guitar tracks are for contrast as a way to not get locked into electronics. I’m okay with it.

ML: I think I find Happier Than Ever’s acoustic tracks less musically engaging because on the first album, ballads weren't Billie's strength. “when the party's over” and “8” especially underwhelm me every time I hear the first record (though it did have a couple good songs in that vein). The electronic tracks, specifically the vicious “I Didn't Change My Number,” “OverHeated,” and the particularly brilliant “NDA” are the best tracks here. Let's talk about "NDA" for a bit: it’s braggadocious (“I bought a secret house when I was 17/Haven't had a party since I got the key”), angry (“Had a pretty boy over but he couldn't stay/On his way I made him sign an NDA/Cause I don't want him having shit to say”), and broken (the glitchy, autotuned “You couldn't save me but you can't let me go/I can crave you but you don't need to know” line). It's the one moment here that fully strikes an equal balance of everything this album says, and its flawless transition into the otherwise average “Therefore I Am” only reinforces the message.

MF: I agree about “NDA” which is also about the fame predicament she’s in. She’s definitely wary because she doesn’t want to be used. It’s difficult enough being in a relationship at her age, but having to add these other issues including motives and having it all becoming public... bad enough for typical teen gossip. Imagine it reaching the whole world!

ML: It's difficult to imagine how stressful that would be, which is frightening because that part of life is always stressful enough for people who aren't famous! What do you think of the spoken interlude “Not My Responsibility”? She originally released it as a video for her 2020 tour, and as much as I applaud the message, it interrupts the album (even though “OverHeated” is an immediate rebound). And maybe it's because I've heard it a ton, but “my future” (the album's first single, released a year before the full LP) feels like a relic of the late WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP era. I don't hate it, but it doesn't sound like the rest of the album in production or tone (not to mention the noticeably longer silent gap before it).

MF: I think “my future” fits in well thematically and I can’t address it on the basis of having heard it a lot before the album because I didn’t! “Not My Responsibility” borders on indulgent taken on its own, but as sequenced it’s okay. Listen, it’s difficult to make a perfect album. That track fits the narrative fine. People who don’t “get” Eilish react viciously; the types of people who don’t think she’s “singing” would’ve probably said the same thing about Julie London when she released her first album. She was the first to intimately address home listeners from the studio. Billie Eilish addresses them from her (or depending on the recording location, her brother’s) bedroom. Anything louder or more intense would be creepy. Also, Finneas’ production is mostly brilliant.

ML: I think all the songs fit the narrative well, it just feels slightly incohesive as a full work. Still, it's an excellent record, especially in the production department. Finneas’ production perfectly compliments Billie's lyrics and vocal performances, in that it's at turns dark, menacing, and light enough but substantive enough to convey the point. The best production moments in my opinion are the squeals at the end of “I Didn't Change My Number,” the breezy but oddly dark “Billie Bossa Nova,” the drums and autotune on “NDA,” and the overall construction of “GOLDWING.”

At the time of writing, Happier Than Ever is the #1 album in the US, propelled by streams and physical sales. During its first week of release, it sold 73,000 vinyl copies across eight color variants; we both got the 100% recycled 180g black vinyl 2LP standard edition (digitally mastered by Dave Kutch, cut to lacquer by Mark Santangelo, and pressed at MPO). How does your copy sound? Mine sounds good, with a lot of low bass, though it's somewhat compressed (but in a way that works well). I wish the cut was louder though, as the MPO pressing has a fair amount of undesired low-level surface noise.

MF: My copy is quiet, well-pressed and I consider it a really good sounding record. Finneas is a genius in my opinion. He’s spare, to the point, incredibly resourceful, and eclectic too. Really, as I’ve written on Facebook, if you "get it" and don’t like it, that’s one thing, but to get mad at this record and call it “crap” or whatever because you don’t “get” it, is to me as stupid as this record is smart. Billie and Finneas’ success isn’t a mystery.

ML: What are your music and sound scores for Happier Than Ever? I’d say 8/10 for music, and 7/10 for sound.

MF: I’d give it 8/10 for both categories. The bottom end here is spectacular, just like the music.

(Michael Fremer is the editor of AnalogPlanet, senior contributing editor for Stereophile, hi-fi expert, and highly experienced record collector. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @analogplanet. Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow Malachi on Twitter: @MalachiLui and Instagram: @malachi__lui)

Anton D's picture

I lean more toward Finneas in terms of whose work I like better, but both are pretty talented…and they don’t skimp on the bass.

This discussion reminds me of Harry Pearson back in the day identifying records like Erasure and Lionel Richie and pointing out the absolutely gorgeous recording quality.

I treated Billie’s first LP as a confection. Thanks to you two, I’ll give record two a fair trial.

mushiking's picture

I really like your approach to this review with a discussion between the both of you. This really adds another dimension and depth of insight. I agree with the 8 / 8. Bought it for my daughter but like it as much as she does. I have the UK brown vinyl and it’s good but a little quiet. Very good sound but lacks a little high end sparkle in my view.

SloppyJoeBuck's picture

Like the others, I also wanted to cheer the conversational review style. Made for an engaging read. I really enjoyed Billie's first EP and LP, and I definitely need to carve out an hour (or less) to spend with this new one. I think her career will be an interesting one to watch and see where it goes. She seems to have a good head on her shoulders, and she and her brother obviously put a lot of attention and care into the music they make.

JJCalvillo's picture

Should do team reviews more often. Valuable to hear the different perspectives. Not a big fan of Ellish's singing style, but would like to hear the record after reading the review.

xtcfan80's picture

I too like the dual review format. I like Ellish's vibe and like this record.

Telekom's picture

I also want to give a cheer for this conversational style of review. If anything I'd love to hear even more about the sonic qualities you both experienced when listening, and how you would debate those in this format. Great to see Malachi back on the site too. :)

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