Billie Eilish Laments Her Celebrity Status With Languid, Whispery ‘Happier Than Ever’

Billie Eilish has become one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and it seems like it might be the worst possible thing, that’s exactly what she wanted. It is more important than ever for artists to present themselves and their work on their own terms, but more and more Eilish feels like the musical equivalent of Ally Sheedy’s Allison in “The Breakfast Club,” a person who seeks attention but preemptively lashes out at those giving it to her in order to even a secret score of criticisms she fears are yet to come. She’s also just 19, already with an EP, two albums, and seven Grammys, so certainly it seems difficult to fully understand the level of scrutiny that she has already received, and will continue to, with the release of her latest album, “Happier Than Ever.” But there is a maddening resistance to enunciation — and more than that, suitable listening volume — that belies a collection of songs that clearly aim to explore and exorcise the complexities of her young life; and even if there are a couple of bangers and more than a few beautifully expressed moments, “Happier Than Ever” too often feels like a run-on sentence of a record from an individual who’s desperate to be heard but inexplicably afraid to speak.

Her fame and much of the attention of the world is a major theme of the album, starting with “Getting Older,” where she talks about the loneliness of growing up in a limelight that constantly surrounds her with needy strangers. Not simply because she lays her feelings so bare (“Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now”) is it clear that the pressure of being a celebrity weighs heavily upon her creativity, but the immediate problem is more technical — namely, she sings in such a low whisper that you can barely understand what she’s saying in order to feel some empathy for her plight. Technology has come such a long way that she’s able to record these songs with her producer-brother Finneas in his basement studio, but it could have been recorded underneath a pile of stuffed animals in a bedroom closet. Her piquant frustrations with the world follow in the footsteps of artists like Fiona Apple, but where Apple’s incisive poetry snakes out of defiant vocal performances, Eilish seems to get smaller and smaller until the listener must lean in to hear — and not always in a good way. 

If that opening track is a good two minutes longer than it should be (at least at its current volume), she rebounds nicely with the kiss-off anthem “I Didn’t Change My Number,” which frames her vocals with a trap-adjacent electronic beat reminiscent of Black Ghosts’ “Some Way Through This,” especially when it sounds like a series of electronic woodwinds tumble over each other during the last 30 seconds. But then the acoustic-electronic samba of “Billie Bossa Nova,” by comparison, oozes with thoughtful sensuality as she navigates a romance (or at least sexual chemistry) she must hide from the prying eyes of the world. And quite frankly, if her life experience now is attempting to do all of the things that a 19-year-old does without it getting splashed about in the tabloids, it’s easy to be sympathetic; but it forces the listener to pick and choose how to absorb a song that might otherwise be an identifiable expression of forbidden or furtive desire, a bit like the emo equivalent of an aspirational hip-hop track where the artist dreams of Maybachs and your goals fall into lower tax brackets.

When you listen to a song like “My Future,” you immediately understand why she was recruited to record “No Tie To Die” for the next James Bond movie; when she applies it, there’s a romanticism and an old-school theatricality to her sound that lends a modern edge to, say, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better.” And as the song drops its funky, skeletal beat halfway through, she hits a stride that you wish more of the record would showcase, merging evocative but minimal instrumentation with a semi-perfect contemplation of the life she has in the shadow of the person she hopes to become. It’s exactly this songwriting that made her earlier work so mesmerizing, and reminds you of the preternatural gifts that set her apart from other pop stars of her generation. She doubles down on this intriguing complexity with “Oxytocin,” where she issues the kind of come-on that feels hard to resist, specifically because it promises so much cruelty. Singing “If you find it hard to swallow, I can loosen up your collar / ‘Cause as long as you’re still breathing / Don’t you even think of leaving,” and accumulating some volume and vibrancy, this is the kind of dancefloor filler that almost guarantees a sweaty, disastrous hookup afterward.

The immediate juxtaposition of “Oxytocin” and the hymnal “Goldwing” back to back shows Eilish’s impish sense of humor, especially since the first part of the song is merely a prelude to her next treatise about a young woman trying not to become corrupted by the music industry. “Lost Cause” is a loping, low-key farewell for a relationship she’s realizing isn’t worth maintaining; “Halley’s Comet” traces a distant outline of the melody to “Can’t Help Falling In Love” as Eilish contemplates hr feelings for a long-distance lover; and then “Not My Responsibility” pours out an icy rejoinder to all of the judgments and preconceptions that she and far too many other young female artists face from critics — probably including at least a few of the ones written above. Of course, she’s entirely correct about her entitlement to make art, to have an opinion, to wear whatever clothes to cover as much or as little of her body as she likes, without having to carry anyone else’s judgments: “Is my value based only on your perception? Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?” she asks, conclusively. But even if tabloid journalism (and plenty of the stuff considered legitimate) is unambiguously poisonous, she remains a person in a world engineered for better or worse to give anyone a platform to express their truth, and especially their truth about someone else’s truth, so if it’s unfair for her to shoulder the burden of an incisive public eye, it’s also a little unrealistic to think there’s a way not to.

“OverHeated” perfectly balances her sharp-tongued deconstructions with an irresistible trap beat, a funkier version of James Blake’s bedroom soul; the languid, melancholy “Everybody Dies” offers insights about life for other 19-year-olds contemplating mortality for the first time; and even under its throbbing electronic beat, “NDA” might be the most depressing song written this year about romance, as she talks about the protocols — including non-disclosure agreements — that she makes young men sign in order to go on dates with her. Whether she has more problems than her contemporaries or speaks more openly about them, having relationships, having friends, frenemies, collaborators, employees, or just alone time all seems like a struggle for her. And by the time she wraps the album with the heartbreaking “Male Fantasy,” you cannot help but feel a deep empathy for her — not the least of which because she’s so thoroughly catalogued the many reasons why. 

And so as “Happier Than Ever” concludes, the takeaway sensation is, “does she deserve all of this,” but it’s hard to know if that means all of the obstacles she faces, or for her own well-being, the success that led to them. “Woe is me” is seldom a good look for artists because they enjoy riches and access and opportunities that most of the rest of us cannot even imagine, but Billie Eilish spends so much time seeming so unhappy that it feels like taking away her celebrity status would be a gift instead of a punishment. But then what would she sing about?

Happier Than Ever” releases July 30 on Apple Music.