Billie Eilish Keeps Her Savant Streak Going With Pre-Coachella Homecoming Shows at the Forum: Concert Review

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.

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Billie Eilish performs at the Kia Forum on April 8, 2022 Rich Fury / Kia Forum Photos

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.

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Billie Eilish performs at the Kia Forum April 8. 2022 Rich Fury / Kia Forum Photos

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.

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Rich Fury / Kia Forum Photos

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.

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Billie Eilish performs at the Kia Forum on April 8, 2022 Rich Fury / Kia Forum Photos

The staging is not altogether differ