Today, Billie Eilish's concert movie experience, Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles, made its debut on Disney +, and I cleared my morning schedule to watch it. The movie blends together animated scenes of a digital Billie exploring Los Angeles and the actual Billie, Finneas, and LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl performing the album from top to bottom.
Disney + seems to be working on building a catalogue of unique, COVID-style concert films of special, audience free performances of entire albums from start to finish in significant or intimate settings. While this film doesn't have any commentary on the songs like Taylor Swift's Long Pond Sessions, Billie's live performances did put the album in a new light and offered fans who didn't get tickets to her upcoming world tour a chance to see all the songs live.
While I enjoyed the film, I don't have an article's worth of thoughts on it, and I'm mostly using its release as a way to retroactively talk about Happier Than Ever now that I've had some time to digest it. I wrote an entire post the night the album came out that never got released, I had a lot of mixed feelings. I wasn't sure about the album. I didn't feel the distant appreciation of the innovation that I found in When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go. I thought nearly everything on the album had been done before and done better. I didn't really understand the why behind it all. But I also didn't feel a strong conviction in publicly sharing my disappointment. I enjoyed some of the tracks enough; I even loved some. I wasn't sure if I was right about the album then. I just needed more time to figure out it out.
Happier Than Ever is a lot like Lorde's Solar Power. Both of these albums were highly anticipated and expected to immediately make a bang. Neither of them were crafted to do so. Instead, these albums are quieter, beige, like a subtle summer breeze. They're almost impossible to form a conclusive opinion on in a single listen, but they do manage to sink under your skin given enough time. There are a couple standout moments on each, but the rest of the songs drift about somewhat aimlessly. It's hard to stick a pin exactly in the why some of these songs exist or how they fit into larger narratives. They are just generally hard to digest but nice enough whispering along in the background.
That is to say, time hasn't made Happier Than Ever a perfect album by any stretch. I dislike some of the tracks less strongly than I used to, and some of the more meh tracks seem a bit shinier, especially after seeing them performed live. But there are 2 songs that I've played since the album came out and have started to listen to a possibly ridiculous amount in the last couple weeks. I want to talk about them.
The best part of this album is the end (not because it's over, just because my two favorite songs are "Happier Than Ever" and "Male Fantasy"). While "Happier Than Ever" could be a bit shorter in its ukulele, quiet opening, it blooms into an incredible, unshakable song. The explosion at the end of the song with raging guitars and clashing drums feels like the most genuine offering on the album as she unleashes all of the pain and annoyances of this break up. Her delivery has a delicious simmering of unbridled rage and genuine anguish as she falls apart in the chorus, and the lyrics themselves stick with you as well. One of my favorite lines she slips in goes, "I could talk about all the time that you showed up on time/But I'd have an empty line/Because you never did". It's scathing and unique and often echoes around my head while I drift off in lectures.
At the beginning of the breakdown of the song, she lyrically dives into many of the details she shared in the doc and subsequent interviews as she vaguely addressed this relationship. "You called me again, drunk in your Benz," she sings, "driving home under the influence/you scared me to death but I'm wasting my breath/cause you only listen your your fucking friends." This start of the story relates a genuine panicked frustration and has a depth of feeling that's mysteriously absent earlier in the album. She goes on to sing about how this guy made her hate the entire city. She also takes a moment to recognize how she did her best to keep the relationship out of the public eye and how she never said anything bad because it was a blow to her ego as well. "And I don't talk shit about you on the internet/never told anyone anything bad/cause that shit's embarrassing, you were my everything/and all that you did was make me fucking sad," she adds. She gets to the core of why so many bad relationships go on for so long unchecked, and her statement is made all the more heartbreaking by the simplicity of her language in the final phrase. She just feels defeated.
Then there's the closing track, which I'm quite possibly even more obsessed with than "Happier Than Ever". "Male Fantasy" is the song that saves the album for me. It does quiet and stripped back- a place the album tries to go multiple times- in a truly unique and successful way. The simple guitar track accents her feather light, ghostly vocals and casts a nearly ethereal glow on this song that falls somewhere between okay and devastation. It's a fitting ending to an album that waffles between overconfidence and fragmentation. Again, this song offers the shreds of realness that I've been craving. She owns her confusion instead of trying to convince us otherwise.
She starts the verse by setting the listener in a scene, one of the few truly grounded moments on the album where she's truly showing us her messy feelings instead of telling us about them. "Home alone, trying not to eat," she opens, painting an all too relatable picture. How often have we all been there? She goes on to continue this story of trying to distract herself by watching porn, but she can't shake how fake and filtered through the male gaze the entire scene is. "I hate the way she looks at me," Billie sings in a way that sticks with you. I appreciate how much work each line of this first verse does as she closes it out with almost an afterthought, "I'm going back to therapy". The verse expertly blends the personal and the societal critiques.
In the chorus, she sings about her confusion over truly moving on from this damaging relationship that's left her in a sort of fugue state. At the end of the chorus, she tries to untangle her feelings, "I guess it's hard to know/when nobody comes around/if I'm getting over you/or just pretending to/be alright, convince myself I hate you". Everyone who's gone through a break-up immediately knows what she's talking about. Even though the end of a relationship can be jarringly cut and dry, feelings don't work like a light-switch.
What I particularly like about the song, though, is that she expands the premise of messy break-ups into friendships in the second verse as she sings about getting a call from a former friend who she was super close to before the relationship fizzled. Friend break-ups, especially ones with little resolution, can often be more haunting than romantic break-ups. "It's all I think about/when I'm behind the wheel/I worry is this how I'm always gonna feel," is another line that has continued to haunt me from this song, continued to make me crave it.
Feelings are a lot like illnesses. When you're in it, there's an all consuming nature that makes it hard to remember what you felt like before or if you'll ever feel better again. During allergy season, it's impossible to remember what it was like to be able to breathe out of your nose until one day you wake up, and you can suddenly inhale deeply. You might not even notice when it really slipped away. Feelings are kind of the same, and that's why her casually whispered statement is so effective.
The next chorus is given a new layer of meaning from the second verse, and she ends the final chorus on a slightly different line that confirms Happier Than Ever won't end with a neatly tied little bow. "I know I should, but I could never hate you," she finishes the the song. As much as that would be the easier choice, it's simply not reality.
While I'm still not sure Happier Than Ever is truly a success as a complete, sixteen song body of work, I have to give credit where credit is due, and I wanted to be able to talk about two songs that have had a complete hold over me in the last couple weeks. They were beautifully performed during the concert special, and I hope more artists (like maybe Harry Styles) will get on this Disney trend of making high quality live performances accessible regardless of location or ability to get to a show.
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