Photo Credit: Kelia Anne MacCluskey
“The second record I’m more buckled in because, God, how many times do you see people slump on their sophomore record? Nine out of ten,” said Katy Perry in the lead up to her soon-to-be record-breaking second album Teenage Dream. The threat of the sophomore slump is a familiar one for most artists – how do you reach the expectations set by your breakthrough LP without making a retread of said record?
Few artists, however, not even pop superstar Katy Perry, have had to deal with the sheer weight of expectations put on their second album that Billie Eilish has. When We All Fall Asleep wasn’t just a record-breaking commercial success but was hailed by many as a modern-day masterpiece; a bold blueprint for what pop music could be.
The best way to meet expectations it turns out is to subvert them and Eilish proved this with Happier Than Ever. Just days after announcing her sophomore effort, the 19-year-old pop phenom released “Your Power.” A far cry from the pulsating, dark pop of “Bad Guy” or “Bury A Friend”, it turned out to be an acoustic guitar-driven ballad forewarning of the dangers of fame. “You ruined her in a year,” Eilish sings in one of the song’s most distressing moments. At another, she’s consumed by righteous indignation (“How dare you // And how could you? // Will you only feel bad when they find out?”).
Happier Than Ever is filled with tales of fame’s dangers and downfalls. But while that may make it sound as if these songs are far-removed from most of our realities, Eilish pulls a clever trick time and time again here; tying her unique experiences with fame to widely relatable sentiments of self-doubt and vulnerability. For a prime example of this, see opener “Getting Older”, where Eilish offers a deadpan reflection on obsessive fans: “But it’s different when a stranger’s always waiting at your door // Which is ironic ‘cause the strangers seem to want me more than anyone before // Too bad they’re usually deranged.”
Thankfully, few of us will ever have to encounter this reality – of having stalkers waiting on our doorsteps – but most listeners will know all too well this sense of isolation and being drawn to people you know are bad for you. On the other end of the spectrum, who can’t relate to declarations like, “I didn’t change my number // I only changed who I reply to.“
Musically, Happier Than Ever is something of a hodgepodge – albeit an inexplicably cohesive one. Whereas When We All Fall Asleep was the sound of cocksure 17-year-old who knew exactly what they wanted to say, Happier Than Ever is the sound of an almost-twenty-something reflecting on adolescence, the premature loss of innocence and the realization that nothing is as clear-cut as it once seemed. Across the album’s 16 tracks, Eilish fleets between lo-fi (“My Future”), dark pop (“Therefore I Am”), choral music (“Goldwing”), balladry (“Your Power”, “Halley’s Comet”), and indie-rock (“Happier Than Ever”).
Eilish tries on each new sonic identity like a snake’s skin – shedding it after the song’s three, four minutes are over. Some work better than others, and while none offer anything as definitive as “Bad Guy”, they prove Eilish to be one of today’s most captivating and consistently surprising stars. Or, as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke more bluntly put it, she is “the only one doing anything f**king interesting nowadays.”