Billie Eilish’s latest album, ‘Happier Than Ever’, is a rather muted affair – acoustic ballads, whistling, crowned tunes, even a hushed bossa nova song – so it was worth wondering how such material plays out. would translate into the arenas the 20-year-old pop phenomenon plays on her Happer Than Ever: The World Tour. But the nearly 20,000 frantic fans who screamed at every word at her triumphant Madison Square Garden concert on Saturday night proved that, at least when performed live, there’s no such thing as a quiet Billie Eilish number.
During this second of two consecutive Garden shows, Eilish controlled every inch of the stage like a hyperactive court jester. During the more macabre hits from her 2019 album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”, such as “Bad Guy” and “Bury a Friend,” the trademark mischievous glint in her eye went all the way to the cheap chairs. Eilish wore her jet black hair in high buns with pigtails and, to facilitate her near constant pogo, sneakers, cycling shorts and a punky oversized graphic tee. The effect was a cross between Harley Quinn, Minnie Mouse and Glenn Danzig.
Early on in the set, she explained the one ground rule of the night: “Have fun, bitch.” She later expressed gratitude that the crowd was present and alive, but never directly mentioned the pandemic. For nearly two hours, the arena was an escape where the only dangers lurking were the powerful figures chasing Eilish’s songs — men she deftly disarmed as the crowd chanted and sat every word of the barbed kiss-off “Therefore I Am.” delighted as she strummed “Your Power.”
The set was minimally decorated – the only other musicians on stage were drummer Andrew Marshall and Eilish’s multi-instrumentalist brother Finneas – but visually immersive and digital projections transformed it from a nighttime highway to a fiery hellscape. To the credit of Eilish’s charismatic stage presence, she rarely needed such augmented reality to impress. She danced and kicked down a narrow catwalk that divided the floor of the area and skimmed across the center of the stage, which became an inverted plane that she tumbled down like a slide at the end of the show.
But Eilish’s most impressive performance was the way she enlivened and electrified some of the more subdued material on ‘Happier Than Ever’. “Goldwing,” one of the album’s most snooze moments, turned into a kinetic call-and-answer number. Quiet diss tracks “I Didn’t Change My Number” and “Lost Cause” turned out to be hard, crowd-pleasing bangers. Even the subtly sensual “Billie Bossa Nova” turned into a libidinous rager, as several fans threw bras on stage and Eilish playfully slung one of them over her shoulder.
The video projections accompanying that song include a series of faceless, scantily clad dancing bodies – sexualizing in the abstract, rather than focusing on the artist himself. Last May, Eilish ushered in the “Happier Than Ever” phase with what appeared to be a transformation of her image, dyeing her blonde locks and posing in a form-fitting corset on the cover of British Vogue. Notably, then, she ditched this aesthetic during the tour promoting the same album, opting once again for inky black hair and the signature ‘Bad Guy’-era baggy silhouette that allows her to move freely on stage.
Eilish conducted the crowd all night like a vigorously loving yoga instructor. She told us when to sit, when to put down our phones to live fleetingly in the moment (a recent arena pop concert trope), when to “go crazy.” The only low point in the staging came when she was lifted to the back of the arena via a hydraulic crane for a few songs. It may have allowed some onlookers to get a closer look, but it also limited her movement, proving how important Eilish’s restless jumping around is to her show’s infectious energy. Some of her older material, most notably the 2017 ballad “Idontwannabeyouanymore,” felt awkward in the setlist, even if it served as a reminder of how quickly and precociously she’s refined her talents in just a few years.
The night ended on an explosive climax without an encore, as Eilish wisely saved the shape-shifting title track from “Happier Than Ever” for last. The song is perhaps the most dramatic example in Eilish’s catalog of her interest in playing with volume and dynamics. “Happier Than Ever” begins as a soft ukulele-plucked tune – made even more dreamy by the confetti that drifted slowly from the rafters of the Garden – then turns into a thundering, cathartic emo opera.
But an even more penetrating moment came during a much quieter song. While Eilish sang the opener of her latest album, “Getting Older,” a montage of home videos documenting her and Finneas’ childhood played on the big screen at the back of the stage. During the second verse, her voice broke and she burst into tears. “You just saw me cry, that’s embarrassing,” she said after the song finished. “When I saw myself as a baby and when I saw Madison Square Garden, I just cried.” But it was far from embarrassing, and in fact an expression of the clever relationship Eilish has developed with her fans: after all, such intimate displays of emotion are a big part of what makes them fill all those seats.
Happier than ever: the world tour
Billie Eilish will perform Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ; billieeilish.com/tour.