Review: Billie Eilish, Leeds festival

Published in The Telegraph on August 26, 2023

Part way through her latest history-making set – Billie Eilish is the youngest star to headline Reading and Leeds festivals – the 21-year-old asks the crowd if they saw her here four years ago. In 2019, festival bosses had to move Eilish from the Radio 1 stage to the main stage – a sign of the nosebleed-inducing upwards trajectory she was on.

“Can you believe what my life turned into? Because I can’t,” she says, with her sly grin, primary-coloured sportswear, and pigtails making her resemble some Gen-Z Ivy the Terrible. Eilish pulls off a rare trick: she captivatingly fills the stage, bringing megastar command of both her sound and the crowd, while somehow still looking like a goofy little misfit, mucking about with friends in her parents’ garage.

It’s the trick her dark electro-pop, made with her brother Finneas O’Connell, also manages. Her breathy, intimate delivery of vulnerable lyrics can make them feel like thoughts being generated inside the listener’s own mind. Even when Eilish sings about the hell of being famous, she has a rare ability to touch nerves.

This has meant that a whole generation has taken Eilish to heart, and there are moments when her – very lovely, and increasingly powerful – voice is drowned out by thousands of youngsters shouting along. But from the stomping opener, Bury a Friend, with its parent-worrying chants of “I wanna end me”, Eilish stokes the sense that this is a sing-along. Even on the ethereally wistful What Was I Made For? – written for the Barbie soundtrack – Eilish interrupts herself with instructions to join in.

While she comfortably swaggered around the Leeds stage or slouched down the giant slope at its centre, it still proved a massive space to fill. O’Connell mostly stays at the back, presiding over beats and keys, with drummer Andrew Marshall the only other stage presence for this outing. But Eilish has the audience in the palm of her hand: at one point, she even encouraged us to put away our phones (good luck), be present, and take a deep breath in and out – a rare moment of mainstage mindfulness.

Eilish and O’Connell did not fail to bring the bangers, via the bass wobble of You Should See Me in a Crown, and the growling vocals and ticking beats of Oxytocin. Projections of sharks, spiders and snakes added to the moody vibe, although more chilling was footage of climate disaster accompanying the insouciantly prancing, plinking piano of All the Good Girls Go to Hell.

But the set also allows softer moments, with an acoustic brother-sister jam mid-way through. It was touching to see O’Connell – “my best friend in the world” – join Eilish for a folksy, fingerpicking rendition of Your Power and the recent release, TV.

But the best was saved till last, with a double-punch of Bad Guy – a perfect slice of goth-pop, its swampy textures still defining the Eilish sound – and then Happier Than Ever. What begins as a swaying torch song soon morphs into a diatribe against a terrible ex, powered by fuzzed-out guitar and righteous drums. 

It provided a glorious burst of catharsis, for a crowd Eilish has carried all the way with her. 

Where next?