Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: Happier Than Ever
In Brief: When listener expectations are this ridiculously high for the follow-up to a landmark debut, it can be hard to separate out your desire to see the artist do well, both professionally and personally, from your actual enjoyment of the music. Billie’s great at subverting audience expectations, and at performing quiet but impactful songs that touch upon surprising influences both past and present, so I knew not to expect a lot of instant gratification here. But I’m liking her sophomore release a teeny bit less with every listen, which is kind of alarming.
Few artists who music I listen to are as intriguing and yet daunting to write about as Billie Eilish. There really isn’t a lot of Top 40 pop music that I follow these days – not that I have anything against an artist being popular, but there’s a certain level of the stratosphere that a musician can reach where it starts to have a noticeable effect on their creative output. When a large chunk of the general public is watching your every move – not just as a performing artist, but as a social media personality, business mogul, and/or everyday citizen grappling with the reality that you can no longer live your life anonymously – it’s understandable that your thoughts and feelings on these experiences will probably start to work their way into your songwriting. As a teenager who was already way more engaged in social media and modern day Internet culture than the old fart writing this review will ever be, there’s some extent to which Billie was aware of, and deliberately exploiting, that feedback loop pretty early on, before her full-length debut album was even in the works. But the release of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in 2019 was a massive game-changer, for her and for popular music in general. I certainly wouldn’t have seen it coming. Imagine for a second that I had no outside influence to tell me anything about who else was into it – I’d have listened to that record and probably thought, “Hmmm, this is quirky indie pop music, surprisingly dark in places, and deliberately blurring genre lines all over the place, but for the most part too it’s understated for mainstream radio, so most of the world’s probably gonna miss out on this eclectic artist.” But since my introduction to Billie happened because of the news of that album’s startling viral popularity, I’ve only ever been aware of her as someone whose music was excessively popular. It took me a few tries to get into When We All Fall Asleep, but I wound up deciding I liked it as well, and I was kind of flabbergasted to realize that she had thrown a huge monkey wrench into my expectations of what could be mega-popular in mainstream music. It felt like she and her brother Finneas had somehow captured lightning in a bottle, and I remember being a bit afraid of what might happen if bigshot producers and record label execs got the notion into their heads that they could reproduce the formula, only make it bigger and sexier. Not to mention the scrutiny that the gushing fire hydrant of media attention exposed her personal life to at such a young age. I couldn’t quite figure out how to express those concerns without sounding like a hipster or a plain old party pooper. Who wants an artist they enjoy to become less popular?
Well, a lot has happened since 2019 (there’s the understatement of the century!), and even though it’s felt like a long gap between albums one and two, Billie never really seemed to leave the spotlight. Some well-timed single releases, a few of them tied to the long-teased second album, but most of them stand-alones, seem to have kept her in radio rotation since the initial seismic shock of “Bad Guy” finally managed to wear off. She swept the Grammys in early 2020. Then Covid hit, and the release of the James Bond movie No Time to Die that she had written the theme song for got put on hold (along with, y’know, most aspects of normalcy in our day-to-day lives), but the song still did surprisingly well. Later in the year, she hinted that she and Finneas were working on a new album (which I took as a massive relief, because there’s something incredibly special about their creative partnership that I think would be hard to capture with anyone else), but was holding off on revealing too much about it because she envisioned it being the sort of thing people would be “dancing in the streets” to when this damn pandemic was over. Somebody forgot to tell that to the first handful of singles released, because “My Future”, while it turned out to be an absolutely lovely summer slow jam, was a bit too low-key for that purpose, and the acoustic ballad “Your Power” was more suited for an artist planning a return to intimate coffeehouse performances than full-blown concerts. In between those two, “Therefore I Am” brought back a bit of the swagger we expected from Billie’s more playful and verbally cutting side, but its timing was kind of a buzzkill – right in the middle of the horrific fall/winter surge when everyone was cancelling holiday plans left and right, with a music video that became an instant period piece, due to it being filmed in an unnervingly empty mall. These songs were all so wildly different that I wasn’t sure how many of them were actually intended for the album (and I’m still bummed that “Everything I Wanted”, from all the way back in late 2019, appears to have been lost in the shuffle due to the album’s long gestation period). But I figured I could expect some sonic evolution and some deliberate, playful, dodging of the massive expectations she knew we all had building up to that point. Happier Than Ever‘s title and tracklisting were finally revealed right around the release of “Your Power”, and I was impressed at that point that two of the three singles thus far were buried pretty deep in its set of a whopping sixteen songs. She must have had a lot of curveballs in store for us in order to give those disparate songs some context, right?
Well, now that I’ve had about a month to digest the album, I’d say… sort of. Happier Than Ever is not exactly the kind of record you’d want to dance in the streets to – not that I really took that statement literally once I got my first taste of it anyway. It’s also not a particularly happy record, except for when it’s being sarcastically happy. That’s all fine by me – we expect some darkness and some confrontational songwriting from this artist, after all. But what surprises me the most is how consistently low-key it is. Look, this is Billie Eilish we’re talking about – she’s the queen of whisper-singing, and Finneas’s production style is often noteworthy for the things he chooses to leave out and the sometimes eerie amount of space in between the sounds that are present. Even on the tracks considered “bangers”, there’s something being hummed, or mumbled, or sampled but kind of buried in the background, that takes a little work to really pick up on even if the tune you’re initially presented with is super-catchy. Shoot, some of the most arresting material on When We All Fall Asleep had little to no drums or programming of any kind. I can roll with quiet Billie. I just don’t know how well the pacing worked out here. Wall-to-wall “Bad Guy”s would be a predictable and pandering move to make, of course, but what if Billie spent the majority of an album on songs with the energy level of “Xanny”, “When the Party’s Over”, or “I Love You”? Those are all amazing songs. I also think all of them would be diminished if they were present on an album that rarely strayed from their slow, smoldering aesthetic. And that’s kind of the effect I’m getting from some of the most well-written material here. It’s thought-provoking in a vacuum, but the more I listen to the album all the way through, the more I’m tempted to feel like a lot of it just kind of blurs together. This is problematic, for an artist with as much insight and curiosity as Billie. Not to say there isn’t anything new here – because there are a few spectacular surprises hidden within these 16 tracks. But once you get over the delightful shock of thinking, “Whoa, that’s different!” on those few occasions, it becomes evident that Billie spends a lot of time in the same lane in between those startling moments. It’s a lane that she pretty much carved out for herself on the last record – so of course she has every right to inhabit it. But the detractors who got annoyed by all of the half-there humming and quietly sultry crooning that happened on that record won’t exactly feel compelled to re-evaluate their criticisms here. Even for someone like me who enjoyed strapping on a pair of headphones and soaking in all the understated details, I have to admit – it’s starting to get old. Where are the eerie lucid dreams? The terrifying bass drops? The monsters lurking around the dark corners of abandoned childhood homes, just longing to be understood?
Where I’m really sensing a shift on Happier Ever After is in the songwriting. I wouldn’t call this a concept album about the life of a celebrity lived in a fishbowl where everyone obsesses over the minute details of your personal life… but there are occasions when it comes pretty darn close, and it feels like she’s addressing an audience that she has to be on the defensive with. Look, I get it. The more people listen to your music, the more the media talks about you, and the more airtime they’re tempted to fill with the non-musical details of your life, which then prompts those who don’t really care for your schtick to go digging for reasons to cancel you. (Not that some of their complaints about her past behavior on social media weren’t legit… but honestly, show me a teenager who hasn’t said stupid shit online that they realize too late can never truly be scrubbed from the permanent record. Back in my day, we only got away with that stuff because the internet was barely even a thing.) That’s not the healthiest environment for a young person, still figuring out who she wants to be, who hadn’t even hit adulthood yet when her first record hit it big. Wanting to know about the events of her life insofar as understanding song lyrics that likely allude to them – sure, that’s reasonable. But when folks are obsessing over something as simple as a new hair color, or critiquing her decision to wear something slightly more form-fitting than a Hefty bag in public for a change, or trying to dig up dirt on whoever she’s dating, to me that’s out of bounds. I can’t blame her for being preoccupied with what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all that attention, basically growing up in a transparent bubble, to the point where it occupies a lot of her songwriting. But for an artist who first impressed me with an uncanny mix of imaginative, trippy, macabre, sassy, and dreamy song ideas, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed when this album basically announces that playtime is over. I can’t even really blame Billie for that – after all, the most authority a songwriter has on any subject is when they write what they’ve actually experienced. Really, I blame the toxic relationship she seems to have with the more extreme members of her fandom who don’t get how boundaries are supposed to work. I applaud Billie for pushing back on that and essentially saying, “There’s a lot about me you don’t know, and it’s for the sake of my mental health that I have to keep some of that hidden, and some of you guys make that unreasonably difficult.” But it kind of ends up making large chunks of this record feel like an object lesson in why we can’t have nice things. People grow up, bad stuff happens to them, they lose a bit of their innocence and become a little more cynical and jaded – it’s not like this is anything new. But it’s still a bit of a bummer. There’s a reason why she titled a record after a sense of happiness that she feels when she’s without certain people. It’s less a declaration of joy, and more of a warning to back off and just let Billie do Billie. Could she have made a stronger album? Sure. But really, I think she deserves better from us in order to make that album.
1. Getting Older
The opener is gonna be a tricky one to write about, because clearly it was a difficult one for Billie to write – it’s one of her most vulnerable and confessional songs yet, showing a huge amount of maturity and self-awareness as she catches the audience up on how she’s been doing over the past couple years since album #1. The music is the easiest thing to talk about, so I’ll start there. This song probably couldn’t be more of a polar opposite to “Bad Guy” if it tried, deliberately starting the album off with sustained, quiet synths that plunk out the melody on every quarter note. Even though it’s a bit repetitive, and I find myself wishing a little more would be added to the mix as we get deeper into the song, I have to respect the decision to start off with a song that puts her songwriting and the more contemplative side of her personality front and center, that forces us to really listen to understand what’s going on. Lyrically… WOW, this is a stunner of a coming-of-age ballad if I’ve ever heard one. From the title, you’d expect a bit of reflection on how she legally became an adult in between the last album and this one, and probably some commentary on how the intense spotlight of her sudden fame has changed her, and we get a bit of that, but what’s most arresting here are the realizations she’s made about both her own behavior and how others have treated her. What most listeners will probably zero in on is her revelation near the end of the song that she was the victim of some sort of abuse, and she has lingering trauma from the experience of being forced to do things she didn’t want to do. Whether this is commentary on a past personal relationship, or on the treatment she’s gotten from her audience or the music industry, seems to be left up to interpretation. But what I find most intriguing about this song is how she’s critiquing her own past decisions in a healthy way, acknowledging that she had a habit of playing off the seriousness of the situation, and also of fabricating answers that she thought people wanted to hear. Basically, she saw a pattern where she was modeling some of her behavior after what she thought others expected of her, and she had to put a stop to it and push back pretty hard on people who overstepped boundaries that made her uncomfortable. That is a lot for a person to have to grapple with at age 19 – or any age, for that matter. And even though the production choices made here might be a tad underwhelming, I like that she and Finneas were deliberate about establishing a subdued and serious tone here. It fits the story she’s trying to tell, and it sends a clear message that regardless of what you might have expected after hearing her previous work, you’re gonna be thrown quite a few curveballs this time around.
2. I Didn’t Change My Number
The sudden ending of the first track – on the last line of a verse, right where you’d expect one more chorus – gives Billie a chance to be slightly mischievous by startling the listener with the growl of a pitbull during the sudden segue into this song. This one’s got a bit more attitude to it – it’s based around a slow, hip-hop-styled beat that has a strong snap to it, though aside from that it’s fairly minimal, with just little bits of keyboard to support it until we get to the bridge and there’s a strong, reverberating synth melody that kind of takes the place of a traditional instrumental solo. The lyrics leading up to that point are a slow, sultry “screw you” to someone she’s decided to cut ties with for the sake of her mental health. She hasn’t been returning the person’s calls and texts (or “texsssssss”, as she enunciates it), and she wants to make it clear that it isn’t because she got a new phone, or because she’s been too busy, or any of those usual excuses a person might make to soften the blow. It’s because she’s no longer interested in putting effort into a relationship when she knows at this point she’ll only get controlling, obsessive behavior from the person in return. I think this works perfectly after “Getting Older” because it gives a clear example of her setting strong boundaries with someone who took advantage of her in the past. She even drops her first lyrical f-bomb (at least on an album track) here… which really shouldn’t be all that surprising if you’ve ever heard her talk for more than about ten seconds, but when it shows up in the line “You’ve got a lot of fuckin’ nerve”, it still makes an impact. The only problem with this one is that I wish there were more to it. That synth solo I mentioned earlier? It shows up about two minutes into the song, lasts about thirty seconds, and then… suddenly we’re done. (A lot of tracks on this album do stuff like that, actually. I suppose it helps keep an album with sixteen songs on it from getting too bloated, but there are definitely a few cases where I’d have loved to hear an idea get developed a little further.)
3. Billie Bossa Nova
You get pretty much what you’re expecting from the title of this one – gentle acoustic guitar, elegantly plucked and caressed in the sultry manner of a Brazilian slow dance, an echo of one of Billie’s more far-reaching past influences, but grounded in the present by the thumps and clicks of Finneas’s minimalist drum programming. I can’t think of a past track from Billie where’s gone for straight up seduction – sure, she made a hella uncomfortable joke about it in “Bad Guy”, and both she and Finneas have come up with intriguingly arranged ballads in the past that have made me want to swoon. But this song is very specifically about wanting to hook up with a lover in the privacy of a hotel room, and have everyone else leave them the hell alone. The reminders are there that they can’t do this the way normal adults would, due to the intense scrutiny of the paparazzi – they have to uses aliases at the check-in counter, they have to be extremely careful to keep their phones locked when not in use, and watch what they put on the internet, even privately for their friends to see. That burden of wanting to be openly sexy, but needing to be meticulously careful about it, fits to cautiously whispered tone of the song incredibly well. Musically, it’s an absolute treat. I just recently watched Billie’s “live” performance of this one at the Hollywood Bowl (as in, she and her band were there in person, but there was no audience due to Covid precautions, with the goal being to record it for streaming audiences), with the L.A. Philharmonic sitting in on a few key tracks, and this was definitely the one where the orchestral trimmings did the most to elevate the song. The background ambiance kind of hints at wanting a more dramatic, romantic sort of instrumental backdrop, but the live version is where this song still came alive. Even without that element being as prominent, though, the album version is still downright magical.
4. My Future
This was the very first single released from the project, a year to the day before the album came out. I was immediately drawn in by its soft, ambient opening, which has the feel of Billie singing solo in some classy club in one of those detective movies, only for it to drop a delightful surprise on us when a vintage R&B rhythm kicks in during the second verse, carrying the song forward with a tasteful air of confidence. I’ve already had a ton of time to get attached to this one, and it’s a huge win For Billie that it both still feels relevant and fits into its surroundings rather well. (Not sure I’d have put it this early in the track listing – shoot, to me it actually sounds like a perfect song to end a record on – but I’m glad to have it here regardless.) This was the first track that she and Finneas wrote together after the beginning of quarantine last spring, and I think I’m always going to remember it as one of those “time capsule” songs that captures a specific way that I felt during 2020, because it’s very much about learning to be by yourself and to actually love yourself. I was truly taken aback by how beautiful that message of self-love was when I first heard it. I think it’s one of her absolute best lyrics, because it finds her wisely saying “no” to a relationship, not because the guy is undesirable in any way, but just because the timing is incredibly poor. Taken in its historical context, the early days of the “social distancing” era were an absolute train wreck for a lot of single folks because it made dating pretty much impossible in the traditional sense. But even without that context in mind, it’s a very empowering song because it’s about a young woman choosing to spend some time doing the work of healing from past hurts and figuring out who she wants to be, rather than forging ahead full speed with a relationship simply because society imprints the idea on all of us that we’re more valuable paired off than by ourselves. This song is incredibly romantic; it’s just not about another person she’s in love with. Rather, she’s in love with the idea of who she could one day become, and perhaps the notion that she’ll be capable of holding down a much healthier relationship at that point, because she made her own health and well-being the top priority before going down that road. 2020 felt like a frustrating holding pattern for most of us. I can’t express how wonderfully refreshing it was to hear a song like it that recast it as an opportunity to emerge on the other side of it as a better person, like a butterfly slowly breaking free from its cocoon.
Well, if that last track had you worried that Billie was getting a little too wholesome, then I guess this one’s your antidote. She gets literally hormonal on this slinky, up-tempo dance number that explores the primal rush that happens in the brain when a person experiences a romantic/sexual encounter. And it’s pretty clear that she’s in it solely for the rush this time around, possibly even deriving a bit of that satisfaction from inflicting some sort of pain or anguish on the other person: “I want to do bad things to you/Don’t want to treat you well.” This one definitely feels like the intended successor to “Bad Guy”, in terms of its ability to take a bass-driven but otherwise fairly minimal dance beat, sinister synths, lyrics that openly flirt with danger, and a slight bit of shock factor, and whip them all up into a naughty maelstrom of sound that might makes the listener blush just a bit. (The notion that God, referred to here with female pronouns, finds their encounter questionable but can’t bring herself to look away, is quite deliberately provocative.) With all of that said, I don’t think the song exists for the shock factor alone – the fact that she gives her prospective victim a clear warning to run away tells me that perhaps it’s another moment of self-awareness, where she faces the temptation to do the same sort of damage to another person that’s been done to her in past relationships, thus continuing the cycle. Putting words to it and recording a song about it, even if the concept scares her a bit, is a lot like facing some of the monsters she stared down on her first album. That’s my interpretation, anyway – you could ignore all of that high-level stuff and just use this song as an excuse to get people all hot and bothered in the club, and I wouldn’t judge you for it. When all is said and done, this is another one of those tracks that I think shows great potential but cuts off a bit too early, which is why it’s not a hands-down favorite just yet (though, much like “Bad Guy”, I’m sure its idiosyncrasies will continue to grow on me). Still, as one of the few up-tempo tracks on a very sleepy album, it’s most definitely an attention-grabber.
Billie surprises us again here by opening with the soft, solemn sounds of a choir, singing a piece by Gustav Holst that she actually sang herself as part of a choir when she was a kid. (The very same choir shows up during the Hollywood Bowl performance – definitely another excerpt from it that’s worth seeking out.) Then she pulls a rather Björk-esque move by transitioning to a hip-hop beat, using the choir as a sampled element throughout, while she sings in a somewhat menacing monotone about how the winged angel heralded by the choir is actually being set up to be used, depleted, and discarded by an unappreciative audience. Pretty dark stuff, cleverly disguised by the drastic cross-pollination of genre influences. I was prepared to declare this one an instant classic, right up until it stopped cold with a whispered “That’s good” after the second chorus. Once again, a song with the potential to develop into something thrillingly climactic is cut short before its time, almost reducing it to interlude status, and it’s actually quite frustrating this time around. I still enjoy this one quite a bit, but just be warned that once it really starts to get interesting, it’s only got about a minute and a half to go.
7. Lost Cause
We’re seven tracks in and we’ve only hit two of the record’s six singles thus far, which I have to say I find intriguing. Unfortunately I don’t find a whole lot intriguing about this particular single in and of itself. It tries to go for a low-key but sassy, hip-hop/jazz hybrid sort of beat, with prominent bass licks and more of the now-expected minimalist programming… and I think that’s exactly the problem. We’ve come to expect a lot of breathy singing and tasteful restraint from Billie, and this is the first single she’s come out with where I feel like she’s hit the ball straight down center field, no real surprises. Even the lyrics, which are basically a playful “screw you” to a loser ex-boyfriend, don’t really have as much bite to them as it seems like they want to, with the worst insult she can land being the repeated observation that “you got no job”. I get that this might be a play on the old “bad boy” stereotype, possibly even a reminder that the persona she took on for fun in “Bad Guy” doesn’t work out so great for relationships in real life, but it still don’t feel like it gets much mileage out of that idea. Billie’s R&B influences are clearly in play here, most notably TLC, but without backup singers or a more energetic backing band or something other than this skeletal rhythmic structure to play off of, this one’s more or less dead in the water. I would say I’m not surprised that this one seems to have underperformed as a single – but considering that I’m still baffled by how much radio play an artist as eccentric as Billie gets in the first place, I don’t exactly have a good track record for predicting that sort of thing.
8. Halley’s Comet
Side A of the record closes with a sleep, late-night ballad that is supposed to romantic, cutesy, maybe even a little self-deprecating. But unfortunately it comes across as a dull bit of filler from an artist who suddenly seems to be on cruise control. I don’t mind Billie doing sparse, piano-based stuff – “Idontwannabeyouanymore” and “Please Before I Go” are absolute jaw-droppers in that category. But take away anything gut-wrenching, provocative, or melodically interesting from those songs, and you’ve basically got this one. The drum programming here is so dull that it might as well not even be present, and Billie’s vocal melody, while pretty and fragile, really isn’t much to write home about. Basically she’s moping about how little time she has to devote to a love interest on the opposite coast (an idea already explored on the previous album’s devastating highlight “I Love You”), and she compares the amount of time she’s actually available for him to the passing of Halley’s Comet, which only happens every 75 years or so. Exaggerate much? Honestly, the only part of this song I care for is the short outro at the end, which switches from 4/4 to 6/8 time and has a more graceful piano melody – but that part’s produced to sound even sleepier, like the faint idea of a song wafting in from the next room. The vibe of it reminds me of a few interludes that Kimbra snuck in between songs on a few of her records, but it kind of annoys me that (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) she and Finneas didn’t take the time to develop that part into a full song.
9. Not My Responsibility
Did I say that “My Future” was the first single released from this project? Technically, that’s true. But this track dates back even further, having originally been played as an interlude during some of Billie’s shows in early 2020. It was never a “single” in the traditional sense, and since it’s entirely a spoken word piece with moody, synthetic ambiance as the backing track, you could argue that it also isn’t even a song. It does have some pretty important things to say about how people perceive/judge Billie without really knowing who she is, though. Particularly on the subject of her looks and her choice of wardrobe, it seems like it’s been a no-win situation for her. Her iconic “baggy” look wound up being a fashion statement, but at first it was intended more to fend off comments (either positive or negative) on the shape of her body. Of course, the armchair criticism – which I think is completely out of bounds when the conversation is supposed to be about the music – still happened, and since everything is online nowadays where everyone can see it, that means that Billie could see it and this understandably led to a lot of emotional anguish, and times when she had to just shut it all off and take a break from social media. All of it because a few overzealous “fans” don’t understand the boundary between an artist’s content that they put out for public consumption, and their personal life. Her slow, measured way of speaking, combined with the nearly four-minute length of the track, ensures that we all have to live with the discomfort for a while. I’ve commented before that spoken word tracks on albums where the words and otherwise sung can feel a bit like the audience is being lectured, and sometimes I wonder if this is just a way to disguise a song idea that couldn’t quite be worked into a melody and rhyme scheme. I was tempted to go that way with this one – even though I agree with EVERYTHING it has to say. Especially coming after a pair of songs that already kind of lagged, this is a sluggish way to get Side B started. But understanding that the song predated the album offsets that a bit. The fact that she felt the need to include it on the album, because apparently not enough of her audience was getting the message, is still somewhat disconcerting. This track is the prime example of why Happier Than Ever turned out to be less the album that the fanbase wanted, and more the album that we deserved.
Another reason why I’m willing to cut “Not My Responsibility” some slack is because it actually did get developed into a song. When the familiar synths and chord progression from that track fade back in here, with a stronger beat to keep things moving along, it’s one of those moments where the track order on this album starts to make a lot of sense, rather than feeling like a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge. I’d actually have been fine with this reflective, “quiet storm” approach at the beginning of Side B if Side A had ended a bit stronger (and I know nobody but the vinyl collectors actually cares about “sides” any more – but still, if you give me 16 songs, I’m going to put a mental bookmark after #8 in most cases). This one builds from the idea expressed in the spoken word interlude, that Billie’s body is not an object put on display for the masses to critique, suggest improvements to, or to shame her simply for being who she is. This one delves further into the toxic relationship that she has with her fans via social media, noting that when a story about her blows up on the Internet, whether it’s a superficial TMZ-type story objectifying her appearance, someone digging up past transgressions in the Twitter archives, or outright death threats (!), there’s really no way to put out the forest fire that ensues before it consumes everything in its path. And there’s no way to go back and permanently delete the past, either. Obviously none of these problems are unique to Billie – plenty of mega-famous stars from years prior could tell many a cautionary tale about what it’s like to have every aspect of your personal life bandied about in newspapers, magazines, TV broadcasts, and more recently social media. But it’s especially sickening when it involves a person who, up until very recently, was legally a minor. I know I’ve harped on that a lot – and I promise I’m not going to make a YouTube video tearfully demanding that we “Leave Billie alone!” or anything – but this is the part of the album where she absolutely smolders with quiet fury over it, and for the most part I think she handles it with grace and maturity. (One exception: I do think the snipe at “inanimate bitches” who get plastic surgery goes a bit too far. She feels no need to surgically enhance the shape of her body, and I 100% respect that, and anyone who suggests otherwise needs to back the hell off. But not everyone who undergoes plastic surgery does so for shallow, vapid reasons – they might have suffered disfigurements from birth or from an accident, or they could be transgender and want their outward appearance to match the gender they identify as, among other reasons. I’m sure she doesn’t mean to take a swipe at those people – it’s just something I wish she had considered before phrasing that line so harshly.)
11. Everybody Dies
This was the track that finally made me admit it to myself – I was trying to keep myself hyped up about having a new record from Billie to listen to, when honestly the end-to-end listening experience really started to drag midway through. Not that I would expect a reflection on the shared human experience of all of our lives being finite to be a banger or anything… but this? This is boring. More sultry, near whispered vocals from Billie over a backdrop of what I guess I’ll call lightly smeared synths. Seriously, there’s almost nothing here for me to play off of, no eerie shadows lurking in the dark hallways like there were in similarly spacious tracks on her previous album. I get that in a sense, Billie actually finds comfort in the notion that life will finally end – she even makes the salient point here that it would be more of a bummer to be the one person who sticks around long after everyone you love is dead and buried. And when her voice actually rises above a dejected whisper here and there, it’s actually quite a lovely performance. But pacing-wise, this album is in the doldrums at this point, and undercooked songs like this one are the biggest reason why. As much as I like to tout Finneas as a genius producer, he definitely has his shortcomings. Perhaps context is everything here – confronting the notion that you, too, will someday die would have been much more thematically appropriate on When We Fall Asleep. Imagine if something like this (but a little more fleshed out) followed “Please Before I Go” in a live set. SHIVER.
12. Your Power
We’re about to get four singles in a row, curiously all stacked up near the very end of the album. In theory, I respect that move. In practice… it makes me unsure how to feel about the placement of an otherwise amazing song on an album that’s been rather short on energy for the last half an hour or so. When this acoustic ballad came out back in April, it took me a few listens to warm to it because I was surprised that she’d put out something this low-key as a single. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as Finneas’s strumming and finger-picking nicely echoed Billie’s vocal melody while giving her a clear, unfussy, and lightly rhythmic backdrop for a thought-provoking bit of cultural commentary. Basically it’s a cautionary tale to people (especially men) who are in positions of power and who are tempted to usurp those in more vulnerable positions (especially younger women), that the truth will eventually catch up to them, and that she knows some of them are heartless bastards who only care about the fallout from said scandals when it threatens to derail their careers. In some ways it’s a #MeToo anthem without trumpeting itself as such. But I also think it comes with a bit of self-awareness, since Billie might be a young woman, but she’s also an internationally famous celebrity with one hell of a platform. Plenty of people will take the words she says to heart, and if she misspeaks, it can hurt people (and this has happened in the past, sometimes because she’s been misconstrued but sometimes because she just plain stepped in it). So I think on some level it’s a reminder to herself that she has to use her own power for good, and not abuse it. And I love that the song works both ways. What I don’t love is how it seems to be robbed of some of the power it would otherwise have when a listener who is unfamiliar with the song, after slogging their way through all of the quieter material preceding it, gets to this one and thinks, “Great, another slow song”. I think there’s more than enough here for the song to rise above its unfortunate lead-in, but if I’d had it my way, this one would have followed something more energetic and confrontational.
The energy level finally ramps up here, shaking off the doldrums for a fairly climactic song sequence that really makes the final quarter of the album stand out. It’s not terribly surprising at this point to hear Billie muttering about the consequences of fame to a minimal, bass-heavy beat; there’s a slightly dissonant plucked string hook that shows up midway through the verse, and then the beat gets heavier and the synths get much creepier in the refrain. Mood-wise, the track feels a bit mischievous as a lot of Billie’s best stuff does, but that has the weird same effect of making the lyrics sound like they’re trying to play off situations that are actually quite stressful for Billie to deal with – unwanted media scrutiny, stalkers trying to figure out where she lives and forcing her to hire security, boyfriends being asked to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements so that the aforementioned creeps can’t track her down on the Internet, that sort of thing. As songs about the trappings of fame go, this one’s a bit more inside-baseball than the rest of them, which to me makes it inherently less interesting than a song about more universally relatable problems with relationships or mental health or whatever, or that uses more imaginative metaphors to face down her real-life fears. Again, I hate that she’s been put in a situation where this is the sort of stuff that comes to mind when she sits down to write songs. I’m afraid that if this sort of thing keeps up, she’ll be headed into Taylor Swift territory, where a lot of her singles will be preoccupied with setting the record straight regarding how the media and the general public perceive her.
14. Therefore I Am
I love the segue that Billie and Finneas managed to pull off here, with the beat at the end of “NDA” speeding up slightly in order to match the tempo of this single, which had been released over half a year prior to it. As with “Not My Responsibility” and “OverHeated”, this adds a feeling of connectedness to an album that can otherwise feel a bit disjointed at times, and I like that they were able to take songs written on two separate occasions and find such a slick way to bridge the gap between them. I mentioned earlier that this playful, swagger-y track came out at a time when I really wasn’t in the mood for it, and I have to say that it plays a lot better for me on the album. It’s meant as a diss to people who try to use her name to ride her coattails to fame, or I guess to attract media attention because they claim to know her and have personal dirty laundry to air or whatever. She’s basically writing them off, saying she was never their friend and barely even remembers their name and so forth, and I’ve come to appreciate the flippant attitude and the kinda-talky, kind-song-songy vocals that once again remind me of some of the sassier R&B girl groups from a few decades ago. Where the song kind of falls flat for me is in the hook. When you drop the title of your song, you want it to be a strong statement. Here it seems like Billie is trying to sound smart by quoting philosopher René Descartes, who famously said “I think, therefore I am”. This statement, which can be profound in the right context, comes across as more of a weak insult here. “You think that you’re the man/I think, therefore I am” really just implies that the other person doesn’t think all that deeply. It’s probably true that their priorities are rather superficial if they’re wasting their breath dishing unsubstantiated dirt on a pop singer, but still, there are much more effective ways to put such a person in their place. This song was hailed by some as the successor to “Bad Guy”, and I can see it in the playful attitude, the heavy bass, and the use of synths and keyboards to accentuate the snark. But to me it lands somewhere closer to My Boy”, especially during one of the spoken bits where it sounds like she’s trying to hold back laughter and it reminds me of that time she told a guy to go trip on a knife. As for the video that I also mentioned above, I guess I can appreciate the guerrilla nature of it, shot in the empty Glendale Galleria with a skeleton crew, but for me it mostly just serves as a reminder of a depressing time when we couldn’t go out shopping or gather in groups or really do anything fun, which kind of deflates the playful spirit of the song.
15. Happier Than Ever
The title track features one of the album’s most delightful surprises… but I have some strong reservations about it, too. At first, you think it’s going to be another softly crooned acoustic number, with the production values sounding a bit more lo-fi this time around, like an unearthed recording from decades past or something like that, but with the cutesy melody standing in deliberate contrast to the acerbic lyrics about being happier when a certain someone is no longer around. This turns out to be a deliberate misdirect when only a minute or so into the song, the acoustic guitar gets replaced by the dry strum of an electric, and the song suddenly switches gears into a rock anthem of epic proportions. That’s right, I said rock. Confusingly, Billie’s music often gets tagged as “alternative” and even gets some play on rock stations, even though absolutely nothing I’ve heard from her up until this point could even remotely be confused with what I’d consider rock, genre-wise. (I guess it’s more a matter of attitude than genre, and in any case I respect Billie’s general disregard for genre tags, but with all of that being said, I’d still tag most of her stuff as belonging somewhere between indie pop, electronica, and R&B, with the occasional acoustic pop or folk song here and there.) I’ll admit, it’s pretty exciting to hear Billie finally go for a big, bombastic rock anthem, ditch the whisper-singing altogether, and just belt her frustrations out in a refreshingly full-bodied voice, bolstered by a chorus of backing-vocals. It’s a triumphant, lighter-waving, fists-in-the-air sort of climax. What I don’t love so much is how Finneas seems to stumble production-wise when dealing with the sudden wall of sound. The bass and drums sound overblown in several places, like they’ve fallen victim to the “loudness war” that a lot of rock music in the late 90s and 2000s was criticized for. Who knows, maybe that’s deliberate, since the two siblings probably grew up on a lot of that stuff – especially when it dissolves into glitchy static at the end, I have to assume this was a purposeful decision to distort the sound and test the limits of the listeners’ speakers and/or ears. But it doesn’t exactly give me a lot of confidence in Finneas’s ability to work as a producer outside of his usual minimalist lane. I have to laugh at the entire notion that this track was released as a single, coinciding with the release of the album, because I can’t imagine any radio station playing this without it being heavily edited. The intro is in a completely different sonic universe from the rest of it, the entire thing runs nearly five minutes long, and the lyrics do more than any other track on the album to earn the “explicit lyrics” advisory seen on the front cover. (It’s not like the swearing is pervasive here, but let’s just say that if they had a swear jar in the atudio, this one would have filled it up with more quarters than the rest of the album combined. Which makes it all the more amusing that Disney+, out of all the streaming services, ended up with the rights to premiere her Hollywood Bowl performance of the album with only a slight bit of censorship. Apparently they were OK with all the “shit”s but not the “fuck”s.) This song pulls no punches at it tells a mentally deranged ex-lover who did nothing but cause her stress that he can basically go screw himself, and I can see why a lot of folks find it to be cathartic, and even consider it the high point of the album. For me, it’s fun, but it’s a bit over the top. I know that sounds like a weird complaint when I’ve continually griped about Billie spending most of the album in low-key smolder mode, so I’ll just say that I appreciate this song in spirit more than in its actual execution.
16. Male Fantasy
And now the album closes out with… another acoustic ballad. Honestly, we’ve already heard probably three or four more low-key tracks than the album really needed at this point, so the bloated nature of it is beyond obvious at this point, but thematically speaking, I guess I can understand why Billie chose to put this one here. It’s basically an alternate point-of-view on the situation from the title track, where she’s now seeing things through the eyes of the sad and desperate ex-boyfriend who is trying to get over her. He comes across as an insecure and self-destructive fellow, distracting himself from the loneliness with pornography, which only feeds further into the unrealistic ideals that he probably expected their doomed relationship to live up to. Oh, and he’s got a nasty habit of getting drunk and going out for a drive, which is either careless or suicidal depending on how you look at it. Good on Billie for choosing to put a stop to that nonsense, but also, I appreciate how she can try to see things through his eyes and feel some sense of compassion for his struggles with mental health and self-confidence. I really don’t think this works all that well as an ending, especially considering how it leaves the listener hanging on an unresolved note. Back in the days before streaming media, this likely would have been a hidden track, with the title track serving as the official end of the record, but there’s really no point trying to hide stuff like this any more, so it is what it is. Decent songwriting here, somewhat underwhelming execution compared to more compelling acoustic tracks like the aforementioned “Your Power”, and of course “I Love You” set such a high bar for this sort of thing on the last record that it’s hard for anything else to even compete. And finally here we are, at the end of a long, idiosyncratic, and somewhat confusing album that I don’t like as much as I wish I did, but that I still wouldn’t consider a “sophomore slump” because there are enough thought-provoking lyrics and genuine surprises to make it feel like a true artistic progression.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Getting Older $1.50
I Didn’t Change My Number $1
Billie Bossa Nova $1.75
My Future $2
Lost Cause $.50
Halley’s Comet $.25
Not My Responsibility $.75
Everybody Dies $0
Your Power $1.75
Therefore I Am $1
Happier Than Ever $1
Male Fantasy $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: