Here’s a fun exercise for music aficionados: Try to remember the last time a major pop or rock star came out of the gate with not one but two flawless albums, without a mediocre number in the bunch. It’s harder than you think. Classics that they are, even Taylor Swift’s and Adele’s first or second releases had some duff tracks between them. Playing this game, you might be forced to take it further back, into the ’90s: How perfect was Alanis Morissette’s sophomore album, put up against her debut, or Nirvana’s first compared to the band’s world-changing second?
Having barely dug that rabbit hole, let’s move on to the matter at hand: Billie Eilish as being possibly or probably singular in recently pulling off this particular rabbit-hat trick. Last year’s “Happier Than Ever” was, against every odd, every bit as strong as 2019’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” And if the Recording Academy seemingly didn’t agree, shutting Eilish out this round, that has more to do with moving on to shiny new objects like Jon Batiste and Silk Sonic than it does any realistic assessment of whether Eilish and Swift are still the girls whose albums run the world. Let’s not get so inured that we miss out on small miracles … and “Happier Than Ever” living up to the cultural marker that preceded it is one.
This is all preamble to remarking upon what a hell of a set list Eilish has now for her 2022 tour, just two albums (or two and a half, if we count her 2017 EP) into a career that’s amassed a library of songs for her at 20 that almost any other performer would envy at 50. Maybe nothing can live up to the shock and awe of her coming out of the gate on Coachella 2019’s second stage with a show that proved she was as captivating a live performer as she was a recording artist, but consistency trumps even the excitement of initial flashpoints. Going into an imminent headlining slot at Coachella 2022, Eilish and her brother Finneas preceded that locally with a sold-out three-night stand at L.A.’s Forum (sorry, Kia Forum) that established she’s in a sweet spot where a performing maturity has set in before the first, most glorious flush of youth has waned.
The audience at Friday night’s show, at least, was not one that differentiated singles from album tracks; this was a crowd that could name that tune — any tune in her catalog — in three notes or less. It was maybe most striking when she and Finneas struck up “Billie Bossa Nova,” a terrific track from the most recent album that you might have been thinking of as a cult favorite at most, and the (yes) mostly young and female audience responded within three seconds with a roar loud enough that it might as well have been “Bad Guy.” When a crowd of 17,000 is going apeshit for a song that really is a legitimate bossa nova — one Jobim could be proud of — it’s hard not to feel the kids are all right.
The potential for stylistic expansion that was made explicit in “Billie Bossa Nova” is part of why the “Happier Than Ever” album was so heartening. You could also feel her stretching her wings in a different direction in the darkly sexy club-thumper “Oxytocin,” which had the house lights at their dimmest and briefly turned the Forum into a thinking-woman’s rave.
But the audience is inevitably at its happiest-than-ever when Eilish is skewing things toward either of the polar extremes she’s established so well on her pair of albums: the punky, insane-in-the-membrane ragers and her impossibly whisper-soft ballads.
It was inevitable that the show would begin and end on moments of high anxiety and cathartic angst, starting with “Bury a Friend,” and its ominous “I wanna end me!” shout, and climaxing with the latest album’s Grammy-nominated title track, with its final (Grammys-censored) plea to “just fucking leave me alone!” Many of the songs that came between were infused with depression and anxiety, too, with Eilish having made no secret on or off the record of her struggles with mental wellness. In several of the newer songs represented in the set, from “Everything I Wanted” to “NDA,” Eilish has thrown into the mix the deleterious effects of fame (although with more self-awareness and even bemusement than most artists who bitch about their own celebrity in song). The latest album has more lyrically light moments than the first — to the point that the “Happier Than Ever” title doesn’t even seem completely ironic — but it still comes off as more troubled in its concerns than not.
So why did Eilish’s tour stops this week make the Forum feel like the happiest place on earth? There’s the inevitable tendency of most artists whose recorded work leans darker to want to make their shows feel celebrative; no one goes to a Cure or Depeche Mode concert expecting to be cajoled into having a bad time, no matter how bleak the lyrics can be. But in Eilish’s case, she really seems to be going an extra mile in making her shows safe spaces for positive thinking, taking on an almost maternal tone as the crowd’s wellness counselor.
At one point, she actually stopped the music for an extended breathing exercise. “Any bad thoughts in your head, I want you to pull ’em out right now, and I will do the same,” Eilish said, motioning as if she were literally extricating the negativity from between pigtails. “For three minutes or whatever this song is, I want you to just think about the things that make you feel happy and safe and calm, and make you feel like relaxed and at ease. … Shhhh. Close your eyes. …I want you to think about how you are loved and you are safe. … And I want us all to take one deep breath in and out. Let it out.” And what was the calming song that followed? “When the Party’s Over” — kind of a bummer song, actually. But its beauty feels medicinal, and that was predication enough for the singer to turn it into the night’s group exercise in centering and self-care.
Just as an aside, it should be pointed out that at several points in the 105-minute set, Eilish asked the audience on the GA floor to take a step back from the stage and runways, and asked if water bottles could be tossed out into the crowd. At least there was no danger anymore of any of Eilish’s concern for a crowd further triggering Kanye West into threatening to cancel a Coachella performance.
If there was any lost opportunity in Eilish’s show, it was in her not further stopping to offer any stories behind the songs, or to explicitly acknowledge that they come from deeper and darker places on their way into being transformed into a set that feels nothing but feel-good. Then again, that may be not so much avoiding any elephant in the room as just trusting that an audience that’s already committed every word to memory already gets that these are some often fairly dark songs that are being turned into explosions of light.
The staging is not altogether different from what fans saw on her pandemic-truncated touring behind the first album. The primary setup is just Finneas (or “Finn-nee-ahs!” as the crowd chant would have it) and his battery of instruments and triggering equipment, joined by drummer Andrew Marshall, at the top of a platform set at a 45-degree angle, set about equidistant from one another than they are from the singer below, before she takes to a ramp that extends well out into the audience. (That very tilted platform would be used as a slide for all three at the very end of the show, like kids making use of a giant banister.) There was a new wrinkle that Eilish’s success wrought for this tour: a crane at the rear of the floor that seemed to defy the laws of physics as it swung the singer over the rear sections of the audience, beatifically blessing the fans in the cheap seats as if it were a construction hoist turned Pope-mobile.
Eilish is hardly innovative in employing a rear stage on an arena tour to make sure nosebleeds go home happy too, but the crane was especially effective in ensuring that portions of the upper deck feel like they might’ve made a little eye contact, too.
And different sections of the Forum were definitely having different experiences: Friday night, when Eilish and Finneas took to stools at center stage for the expected acoustic segment, there was one loge section near the rear that sang along with the sexual-harassment ballad “Your Power” so loudly, they almost shifted attention away from the O’Connells, while the rest of the crowd was caught up in a pin-drop hush. It was kind of like there’d been some sort of group-sales outreach for MeToo activists, that had them all seated in one section — who says there’s no such thing as regional music anymore?
Eilish had played her Oscar-winning theme from “No Time to Die” at the opening night of the three-night Forum stint Wednesday, but dropped it for Friday; it appears to be the only part of the tour’s 27-28-song set that is a variable. If she had performed it, it might have been a reminder of the Other Life that she has acquired before she is old enough to legally drink: someone who is accepted with open arms among the elite of filmdom as well as the eldest generations of singer-songwriters, a glamorous presence on red carpets, and just about the most gracious presence at an Academy Awards that will forever be remembered for ungraciousness. It’s ironic how far she’s come toward being considered the paragon of humility and elegance, after so many grown-ups were initially put off by the blank stares and bleeding-orifice videos that served as early branding for her and, probably, a real expression of sullen-teen self, too. How quickly she went from that to being considered some kind of combination of Laura Nyro and Rita Hayworth.
But, as it turns out, her flirtation with pure glamour in the Vogue photo shoot, and the platinum-blonde look that extended as far as the “Happier Than Ever” photo shoot… well, that was just a teen phase she was going through, playing around with the optics of Hollywood sophistication as casually as if she’d decided to die her hair purple. It’s kind of a relief, anyway, now that she and Finneas are established as brilliant songwriters and have nothing to prove, to see her in pigtails again, while they still befit her. And when she pulled her hair out midway through the show, it was so she could properly head-bang. Jazz records and whatever else is being predicted for her can wait; she’s still doing bedroom-rock proud.