I wanted to hate this album. Why? The marketing and merchandising in the lead up the release had, in all honesty, completely done my nut in. There is something unsavoury about seeing such a big artist, someone whose audience is largely made up of young people, pricing her vinyl at close to twice the standard cost of a normal album. That was annoying enough. But then there was all the wanky merch that started dominating Twitter timelines – the vegan pearl necklace, the exclusive album bundles that Billie had flicked paint over the front of with her very own hands. What a load of bollocks.
After the release of her debut album, Billie had appeared to be one of the coolest and most down to earth pop stars the planet had ever seen. And now here she was just a couple of years later approaching ground that had only previously been walked by Gwyneth Paltrow, moments away from releasing an album made up entirely from the particles of her farts.
So yeah – a little bit of me was hoping that when Billie released Happier Than Ever, it would be unadulterated crap and she would disappear before the fart LP ever became a reality. And upon listening to the album, she certainly gives me a fair amount of ammo for a hatchet job. There are flaws in abundance here. ‘Halley’s Comet’ is among the dullest songs I’ve heard this decade. ‘Overheated’ feels like it was written by a totally different songwriting duo to the one that penned so many hits two years ago – the lyrics are appalling. ’I’m overheated, can’t be defeated/Can’t be deleted, can’t un-believе it/I’m overheated, can’t bе defeated/Can’t be deleted, can’t be repeated/I’m overheated/I’m overheated.’ That’s enough of that.
‘Billie Bossa Nova’ is as silly as it sounds, ‘My Future’ will make you think of a pre-recorded keyboard tune and, in the title song ‘Happier Than Ever’, we have something truly terrible. Like Sum 41 and Aerosmith had a baby that only knew how to do bad guitar solos. And while ‘Not My Responsibility’ has a superb message that must have worked incredibly well in the live format in which it began, as an album track it meanders to the point of distraction.
But after all I just said, I didn’t decide to review Happier Than Ever because I wanted to gleefully slag it off. No. I put my name down because, if you scrape away the bloat I’ve just discussed, you have a ten track album that is a stone cold classic. There is so much to be impressed by. The menacing and hypnotic ‘Oxytocin’ is an absolute belter of a tune. Alongside another superb single in the form of ‘Therefore I Am’, it is the most reminiscent of the gothic intensity of album one – both of these songs will be beloved by those who have been moaning about Billie’s movement away from bangers on this latest release.
To me, though, it’s this evolution that makes great swaths of Happier Than Ever so impressive. On ‘Your Power’ we hear a much more nuanced and controlled performance than we have from Billie before. We also hear, in the song’s echoes of Phoebe Bridgers, that Billie has that Bowie-esque skill of borrowing the best bits of the artists who are having success around her. ‘Male Fantasy’ might be a bit on the nose, but it is a lovely little number that has a message that needs to be heard by her young audience. And in ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’, we get a mix of the two sides of Billie – the engaging young popstar and the increasingly skilled storyteller and performer. And then we have ‘Lost Cause’ – my personal favourite on the album – it’s a soulful and measured song that also doesn’t shy away from being a lot of fun at the same time. ‘Getting Older’, ‘Goldwing’, and ‘NDA’ are also all superb.
My snobbery over pop music has certainly reduced over the years. But while I can now appreciate a good pop song, and occasionally even an album, it is very rare that I get excited about the career of a popstar. Happier Than Ever makes me excited. Yes, there is an abundance of trash here. But in the stuff that works, Billie shows an ability to hold onto her identity as an artist while also trying new things and pushing boundaries. That is something that is true to many of the best bands and artists out there and makes me wonder what she will do over the course of what will surely be a very long career. Let’s just hope she doesn’t go full Gwyneth before she makes a truly flawless album – because she definitely has the talent to do so.
Words by Fran Slater