Happier Than Ever
(Darkroom / Interscope ***)
On Happier Than Ever, Billie Eilish faces the familiar challenge of the second album. When an artist’s debut is an enormous success, the pressure to repeat is real. And there’s a well-worn story trap to avoid: How fame and fortune changed me!
Eilish’s goth-pop debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was a triumph. In 2020 she became the first artist to sweep the major Grammy Awards since Christopher Cross (!) in 1981.
Who wouldn’t have celebrity vertigo after such a rapid rise? The singer, who turns 20 in December, addresses her alienation at the start. “I’m getting older, I think I’m aging well,” she sings. “I wish someone had told me I’d be doing this by myself.”
But the more telling line comes later: “Things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed now.” She imagines a future of ennui: “It’s so weird that we care so much, until we don’t.”
Eilish’s disaffection could smack of complaint. But on Happier Than Ever, which is topping the charts thanks to extraordinary sales of vinyl and cassettes, she’s self-deprecating and never overbearing.
Working again with her brother Finneas O’Connell, Eilish — who’s scheduled to open Firefly Festival in Delaware on Sept. 23 — fashioned a sophomore release that’s whispery and subtle, drawing the listener in on songs like the undulating “Billie Bossa Nova.”
She addresses body image issues and social media cruelty on the spoken-word “Not My Responsibility” and “Overheated.” On “Your Power,” she calls out a sexual predator in a quietly chilling indictment. Eilish doesn’t need to shout. She always makes certain she’s being heard.
— Dan DeLuca
Last year’s Imploding the Mirage saw The Killers in wide-screen, big-tent mode, with songs built for an arena tour that never happened. Faced with unexpected free time, Brandon Flowers wrote songs about his adolescent hometown in Utah and decided to make a concept album.
Pressure Machine is full of damaged people and broken dreams. Compared to Imploding, it’s downcast and somber, littered with opioid casualties, religious apostates, domestic abuse, and youthful marriages gone sour. Flowers has said he was inspired by stories he remembers from being there in the ‘90s, and snippets of interviews with current residents preface most tracks.
Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska seems to be an inspiration for the exploration of small-town characters in crisis, and Flowers echoes Springsteen’s cadences in lines like “Some nights we drive up the mouth of the canyon / On hillbilly heroin pills. / We get out and watch the sunset / Peaceful and still — and free” (“West Hills”).
(The admiration is mutual: Springsteen recently sang with The Killers on “Dustland.”)
For Pressure Machine, Flowers enlisted the Imploding production team of Shawn Everett and Jonathan Rado (of Foxygen). Although ballads predominate — often with fiddle from Sara Watkins; one with vocals from Phoebe Bridgers — The Killers sound most at home when the tempos gallop on “Quiet Town” and “In the Car Outside.”
The Killers are also scheduled to appear at the Firefly Festival in Dover, Del., in September, and these songs would sound great there.
— Steve Klinge
(New West ***)
Native Sons comes as a welcome antidote to the self-conscious artiness that has come to characterize a lot of Los Lobos’ music. Here, they eschew originals (with one exception) to pay tribute to artists from their native Los Angeles.
Los Lobos don’t reinvent these numbers, but the heart and soul they bring to the performances, and the musical versatility they display, offer a thrilling reminder of why they are not “just another band from East L.A.,” to borrow the self-effacing title of an old compilation.
With his takes on Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica Say You Will” and the Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor,” David Hidalgo again shows he’s one of the most expressive singers in pop. On Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird”/”For What It’s Worth,” the sweetness of his voice is offset by the sting of his guitar.
Cesar Rosas, who usually handles Los Lobos’ brawnier stuff, sounds right at home on “Love Special Delivery” by Thee Midniters and on Percy Mayfield’s “Never No More” (also a showcase for saxophonist Steve Berlin out of Philadelphia).
Los Lobos’ primary songwriting team of Hidalgo and Louie Perez are at their best on the lone original, “Native Son,” a poignant love letter to Los Angeles and its Mexican American heritage.
(Los Lobos will perform Sept. 17 as part of the XPoNential Festival and Nov. 20 at City Winery.)
— Nick Cristiano