Who is the “mature” Billie Eilish? That is an inherently strange question to ask, considering that the global pop superstar is:
- Nineteen years old.
- The creator of only one, now two, studio albums.
- Impressionable, as any literal young person is.
Eilish has been very publicly going through a persona change with her second album, Happier Than Ever. Like David Bowie or Madonna before her, the spotlight is so bright and intense that passing months feel like entire lifetimes for those reporting on the changes in hairstyles, listening tastes, and public comments that have been trickling out. Such is the curse of the pop star who has permeated pop culture so thoroughly that nothing they do can ever be private anymore. If it is, it’s secluded and solitary and, inevitably, a reduced version of the normalcy that we non-world famous individuals take for granted.
The first track, ‘Getting Older’, brings together all the thoughts that no nineteen year old should ever have to think about: ageing gracefully, being past your prime, not being ungrateful. She acknowledges that, no matter how supportive friends or family or industry professionals or adoring fans might be, she’s going through it all alone. The strangers that meet her at her door might want her, but they don’t want the real Eilish because Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell can’t afford to come to the door.
Musically, Happier Than Ever is far less concerned with trap beats or scuzzy electronica than When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was. Both Eilish and her brother/producer/co-songwriter Finneas are older and have a wider range of influences to choose from, expanding their palate to Bossa nova, jazz, rock, and ambient. The production style is less ostentatious. Eilish was never a party-jam kind of artist, even if her music got blasted at plenty of frat-bro parties over the past three years, but Happier Than Ever is focused on the subtleties, so much so that it may not resonate as thoroughly as her previous work. That’s probably a good thing, considering how this album was destined to be a complete smash before anyone ever heard a single note. It was a smash before Eilish recorded a single note.
The material on Happier Than Ever is better but less immediately impactful than her previous songs. Singles like ‘NDA’ and ‘Your Power’ were evidently anomalies, as tracks like ‘Billie’s Bossa Nova’, ‘OverHeated’, and ‘Everybody Dies’ are what gives the album its true character. They are not tracks that are going to drag the mainstream to Eilish’s own warped vision, like ‘Bad Guy’ and ‘When The Party’s Over’ did.
However, they end up resonating far more than the pop-adjacent tracks.
‘Not My Responsibility’ is the track that most directly addresses the uncomfortable level of pervasiveness that Eilish has in culture. The clothes, the persona, the music she makes, it’s a direct address/monologue to the intense rise to fame that she’s experienced. When she asks, “do you know me?” it’s an obvious and unnecessarily rhetorical question. Through the constant reactions to every one of her actions, positive or negative, she can never truly move if she lets any of it make its way to the real person inside her persona. The verdict: it’s not her responsibility. Duh.
So if this is the “mature” Billie Eilish, then that means we get an artist who is far more comfortable asserting her own beliefs and confidence, using the full range of her vocal ability, and experimenting in the artistic sandbox. It means that she’s more serious, less goofy, and more inherently aware of the way she’s perceived. She’s building a necessary, and familiar pop music armour, one that lends itself well to public image changes but pushes the real person underneath further and further away. Ultimately that will also be a good thing: everything the public needs to know about Billie Eilish, they can find in her music. To ask for more feels like an invasion of privacy, at best.
If nothing else, Happier Than Ever should fully satiate any listeners who feel as if Eilish should be addressing the realities of her life as one of the world’s most famous pop stars. But one might be forgiven for wishing she’d indulge in a little bit more escapism, if only because the realities of life under a microscope tend to not really be life at all.