In this fashionably late double album review, I catch up on Lorde’s new sunny LP Solar Power, and Billie Eilish’s not-so-happy new record Happier Than Ever.
Can you believe that Lorde is only 24 years old? Hasn’t she been making music for, like, a decade now? Almost. The New Zealand pop star was only 16 back in 2013 when she dropped her breakout single ‘Royals’. I’ve always been pretty indifferent to that song (and Lorde’s music in general), but I appreciate that ‘Royals’ paved the way for a new breed of quiet breathy pop singers.
The quietest and breathiest of these is 19 year old LA artist Billie Eilish. I first featured her on this blog all the way back in 2017 (I LIKED HER MUSIC BEFORE IT WAS COOL), but it wasn’t until 2019 that she found mainstream success aged only 17. Her experimental production and beyond-her-years lyrical maturity is, in my opinion, a lot more engaging than anything Lorde has released - but I appreciate there probably would be no Billie were it not for Lorde.
I was interested to see how these two artists would evolve. Now that they’re no longer teenagers, would their music still be as moody? Now that they’re both superstars, would their music still be as intimate?
Let’s start with the new Lorde album. She’s certainly sounding much cheerier on this album than she was on her last album, Melodrama. This could be because she’s been blissfully living with no internet for the last few years. She’s cut herself off from social media and has no internet browser on her phone (well, at least there’s no chance of her reading this review).
Digital sobriety has caused her to change her whole outlook and persona. As she states on ‘Oceanic Feeling’, ‘the cherry black lipstick’s gathering dust in a drawer’ and now her ‘cheeks [are] in full colour, overripe peaches’ – she’s dropped the gloomy pop-goth look and is now walking around with rosy cheeks. And we’re not just talking about the cheeks on her face. Let’s just take a moment to admire that album cover...
|OH LORDY, LORDE!|
The songs on this album are much more uplifting. Well, perhaps not the one about her dead dog. However, songs like ‘The Man With The Axe’ are very cheery – despite it’s creepy title and melancholy sound, it’s a sincere love song for her partner. Tracks like this one are quite moving. Unfortunately, many of the other tracks aren’t so moving.
This is largely because they’re stuffed full of tired hippy cliches. There are obligatory references to ‘Woodstock’, requisite rambling stoner anthems like ‘Stoned At The Nail Salon’ and there’s even a token track titled ‘California’ about the failed American dream. Meanwhile, her attempt to outdo the Beatles by calling herself ‘a prettier Jesus’ comes across oddly narcissistic for someone who’s often portrayed herself as humble.
Sadly, the obnoxious lyrics aren’t the only glaring issue with Solar Power. Musically, this album is utterly dull. She’s traded the nocturnal synths of Melodrama in exchange for vaguely-psychedelic guitars courtesy of master-of-bland-production Jack Antonoff. Aside from some pretty vocal harmonies on ‘The Path’, Lorde’s vocal delivery also fails to generate much energy on Solar Power. Where are the hooks? The result is a very wishy-washy album.
Now onto the new Billie Eilish album. Unlike Lorde’s Solar Power, Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever is not a happy album. It’s a bit more jolly than her debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – there are moments of true optimism here like ‘My Future’ and she’s no longer singing worrying lines like ‘I wanna end me’. However, there are still laughably bleak tracks here like ‘Everybody Dies’.
Unlike Lorde, who seems to have found liberation in stardom, Billie seems very much tortured by fame on Happier Than Ever. Nowhere is this clearer than on haunting spoken word track ‘Not My Responsibility’ in which she confronts those criticising her looks online. Meanwhile, title track ‘Happier Than Ever’ sees her lashing out her ex with exasperated lines like ‘And I don’t talk shit about you on the internet’. All this drama makes you realise just why Lorde decided to permanently log off. Of course, it’s also a lot more relatable than Lorde’s happy hippy paradise and makes for some very powerful music.
Billie's lyrics are very direct and at times almost feel cold when you read them as standalone text: ‘I didn’t change my number/ I only change who I reply to/ Laura said I should be nicer/ but not to you’. However, her cracked whisper gives each line so much emotion. The impressive minimalism of it all is what really made me fall in love with her debut album – she’s able to convey so much feeling with so little substance. No flowery metaphors, no emotional power vocals and no huge soaring instrumentals. Everything is stripped back to the bone. It’s minimalistic to the max. And this creates so much intimacy and vulnerability.
FINNEAS’s production continues to be just as experimental and surprisingly varied considering how skeletal it is. Take the first five tracks as an example. ‘Getting Older’ is made up of pulsing synth chords. ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’ features a dub-inspired rhythm with samples of her pet pitbull, Shark, thrown in there. ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ is, well, bossa-nova-inspired. ‘My Future’ is decidedly jazzy. And ‘Oxytocin’ features a sweaty mean electro beat that sounds like something you’d hear in a sex dungeon (it’s worth noting both Lorde and Billie Eilish make reference to the love hormone ‘Oxytocin’. Clearly the buzzword of the year. Every pop singer’s going to be singing about oxytocin now).
Some of my least favourite tracks appear towards the back end of the album. ‘NDA’ and ‘Therefore I Am’ are ruined by moments of gaudy auto-tune. Closer ‘Male Fantasy’ is meanwhile a fairly pedestrian guitar ballad. However, it’s otherwise a very enjoyable and powerful pop album.