Artist: Billie Eilish
Album: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
In Brief: Billie’s full-length debut rather boldly defies my expectations of what a pop album, whether indie or mainstream, should sound like in 2019. She also busts some of my stereotypes about teenage singer/songwriters in general, and how they can communicate both lyrically and sonically in a way that comes across as authentic while still drawing in a huge and diverse audience. I didn’t expect to like this album nearly as much as I did, and now I can’t stop listening to it.
I started listening to Billie Eilish just to spite DJ Khaled. That may sound incredibly petty, but let me explain.
I had never once heard the name Billie Eilish until June of this year, when her debut album topped the Billboard charts, largely due to the insanely huge amount of streams it got from a fanbase she’d manage to cultivate online after having nothing in her discography aside from an EP and a series of standalone singles. The word of mouth must have been off the charts for this singer/songwriter, which is even more impressive when you consider that she’s only 17 years old and pretty much everything she does is completely homegrown, written either by herself or with her brother Finneas O’Connell, who also serves as her producer. How I’d managed to not hear of her up until that point when she was killing it in the streaming world, I couldn’t tell you, but I definitely heard of her when a few YouTubers I follow started commenting on DJ Khaled’s griping about how his new album Father of Asahd deserved to be #1 instead of some album by a singer he’d never heard of.
Now look, I don’t want to waste too much space on DJ Khaled… other than to reiterate the commonly expressed sentiment that he is a no-talent hack whose only skill is to assemble entire mobs of rappers, singers, and producers to do all the heavy lifting on his records while he narcissistically trumpets his own superiority. His recent appearance on the season finale Saturday Night Live was just about the most unbearable trainwreck of content-free hype I’d ever borne witness to in a live performance. The guy came across as basically the human personification of an airhorn. So you can understand why I was primed for a little schadenfreude when he learned the hard lesson that every now and then, actual artistic talent manages to triumph over the tactics of brute force marketing and simply repeating your name until the audience has been worn down to the point where they know who you are whether they like it or not, in order to claim the top spot in a fleeting popularity contest. I generally don’t notice or care what’s topping the Billboard charts – it’s a useless metric for helping me discover new music that I think might appeal to me as an individual. And I’m not any more inclined to like Billie Eilish’s music just because the popularity of it sent DJ Khaled into a petulant meltdown… but that was certainly enough to make me curious about what kind of music she made that was defying the odds and drawing in such a sizeable audience, despite my never having heard of her. It made me want to hear some of it for myself. But from the point where I cued up her album in Spotify and pressed play, Billie had to do the rest of the work to impress me on her own.
Billie’s full-length debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a difficult album to classify, and that’s by design. She’s not a big fan of genre labels, and doesn’t seek to limit herself to conventional stylistic boundaries. You can certainly hear a lot of contemporary electropop influence in her music, as well as aspects of dance, trap, and R&B, but every now and then there’s a delightful bit of unexpected acoustic instrumentation, maybe even a jazzy torch song or two. And the bass on this record… oh my God. When a songs hits its big bass drop moment, it can be downright eerie, especially when it suddenly shows up in an otherwise minimalist arrangement that has been begging you to turn the volume up to capture all the sonic details. Some might find this album’s sonic trickery unsettling, especially on a few songs where Billie’s voice is panned back and forth rapidly or otherwise distorted to sound more mysterious or sinister. Finneas certainly has a unique production style, and it certainly took a few listens for me to fully appreciate the sibling duo’s aesthetic. Individual songs on this record might remind me of artists like Lorde, Lights, or Kimbra, but I can’t really think of an artist who works well as a comparison overall, due to how much this album bounces around from one sonic idea to the next. Honestly, the artist who comes to most most frequently as I think about the sheer potential Billie has to grow and experiment (and completely baffle her listeners) in the future is Björk. Not in a vocal sense – or even in a stylistic sense, really – just in terms of the many possible directions I could see her going after an auspicious debut. That probably sounds like excessively high praise, given that I’m making comparisons to the queen of genre-busting other-worldliness, but Billie clearly marches to the beat of her own (extremely bipolar) drummer. She’ll have to continue to be fiercely protective of her individuality in order to live up to that comparison, but there’s a world in which I can realistically see that happening.
While I’m proud of Billie for being so different, I’ll also say that some of my favorite moments on this record are the low-key ones, where the sonic weirdness is scaled back, and she manages to captivate with little more than a strong vocal melody and a simple but effective set of piano or guitar chords. This record ends very quietly, but those dark horse picks near the end are actually some of her best work. This record makes up for in diversity what it might initially seem to lack in cohesion. For best results, you’re gonna want to have headphones on to catch all of the little nuances. Despite the presence of a few catchy bangers, this album is not optimized for listening while driving.
Billie’s lyrics certainly challenge my notion of what it means for a young singer/songwriter to be “authentic”, versus conveying the image that they would expect to make a young star popular (or that a money-grubbing label looking for new viral talent would foist upon them). Role play is a huge element of Billie’s songwriting, and this is perhaps why it took a few tries for her personality to fully grow on me. She jumps back and forth quite disorientingly between exaggerated songs where it’s pretty clear she’s toying with the audience’s expectations of her, or seeing how far she can push an imaginary scenario into dark territory, and songs that sound like they come from honest, vulnerable experiences that she’s had as a young girl just trying to find her own path in life. Perhaps the song that is most unlike what I’ve gathered her real personality is like is the first one on the album – the near-ubiquitous (as of this writing) “Bad Guy” – so I’m glad I persevered and tried to understand the different facets of these songs before writing her off as trying to prove she was something that she really wasn’t. With that said, the occasional lyric on this album is going to trouble some listeners when they realize it’s coming from a seventeen-year-old. There’s nothing explicit here, though, so you really have to pay attention to the lyrics to realize how many of these songs are coming from fascinatingly dark places. The visual element, as seen in her music videos, is an important part of the presentation for Billie, and the music definitely fits the dark and yet mischievous, vampy and yet not overly sexualized, image that she presents on screen. For the most part I’m going to be discussing the songs independently of the visuals, since I was listening to this album in a vacuum without even knowing what she looked like or what music videos she had made the first several times through, and I think the album holds up quite well even without the visual aspect. But it’s nice to see that she’s taking into consideration how the entire multimedia experience presents her as an artist, and trying to be consistent about that. It’s a lot more thought than I’d expect a lot of artists even ten years older than her to have fully thought through when putting out their first record.
Realizing how much this record has grown on me, and how iconic so many of its songs seem to have become to her massive fanbase, I’m a bit nervous about what might happen next. As she starts to think about delivering a follow-up over the next few years, she’s likely to face enormous pressure from fans who are probably gonna want the same thing – but different!!! – and from record execs who will try to drown out her quirky, intimate aesthetic with flash-in-the-pan artist features or more mainstream production techniques, in an attempt to engineer blatantly obvious hits. Whether she bravely stands her ground the way that she appears to have done with this record, or whether we’re witnessing a uniquely special moment in a young artist’s history where the lightning will never strike quite the same way again, it’s too early to tell. But I’m firmly in her corner. (Even if it’s a dark corner full of spiderwebs and black blood oozing down the walls.)
“I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album!”
Yeah, that’s all you’ll hear in this thirteen-second prelude. It’s silly, kind of gross, and not really worth the paragraph of discussion I’m giving it, but it at least gets us in the mindset of Billie being a troublemaker who isn’t necessarily trying to be taken seriously at all times.
2. Bad Guy
So here’s the current big hit. It’s the slinkiest, bounciest, catchiest thing on the album, the kind of thing where Billie knew instinctively when she wrote it that it had to go at the beginning of the album. From the sheer hook value alone, I can see why it’s caught on like wildfire, because the miniamlist beat, Billie’s monotone whisper-chanting, the deep bass groove, and especially that colorful synth line that kicks in after the first verse all co-conspire to get the most stubbornly stiff of listeners moving. I feel like I had a fight with this song and it won, because at first I really did not like the seemingly nihilistic relationships about a physically rough relationship between two people with Billie being the one using a (presumably much older) guy as her plaything, psychologically manipulating him into letting him think he’s in charge while knowing deep down she’s really the one in control. It would probably be easier to recognize this as a dark joke if you were already a fan of Eilish when this song had come out. It’s so not the personality she puts forward elsewhere on the album, and I actually think this was done deliberately to throw people for a loop. I mean, when she proclaims she’s the “might seduce your dad type” and gives a shout out to her poor, horrified mother who likes to sing along with her lyrics except for when they’re lyrics like these, and especially when she caps off the chorus with an irreverent “Duh!”, it’s pretty hard to take any of this seriously. (To be honest, I don’t really care for the “Duh!”, because it implies that she’s stating something that should be obvious, that as a newcomer wasn’t obvious to me at all, but I guess I understand its function in helping to establish the flippant nature of the song.) The implications of people misunderstanding this song do still kind of squick me out a little bit, especially when I consider the very young audience she’s managed to cultivate at this point. But if she’s making some sort of a subversive statement on how obviously messed up this would be if a guy were singing these sorts of lyrics about his relationships with women, and how this presents a double standard, then I guess I’ve been on board. At this point I’ve kind of been beaten into the submission by how perversely addictive this song’s production values are, which threatens to obliterate most of my nitpicks. (At least, until they went and released a remix featuring Justin Bieber, which turns it right back around into stupid and trashy territory again. Piss off, Bieber – you’ve already helped ruin Ed Sheeran for me this year.)
I’m just going to abruptly start a new paragraph here so that I can point out how suddenly this track cuts off, and is then replaced by a slow, grinding trap mix of itself, giving Billie a little more space for menacing whispers about how bad she is. This shouldn’t be the kind of thing I’d call “cute”, or make any logical sense. But it’s kind of amusing in its sheer audacity.
Just about the last thing you’d expect a hype magnet like “Bad Guy” to pivot into is a smoky, minimalist ballad about how all Billie’s friends are getting wasted at parties and she’s just not feeling it. I say “smoky” as a pun, because there’s a deliberate ripple effect applied to the vocals as this song turns a corner into its chorus that makes her voice fluctuate wildly back and forth between the speakers (which was apparently meant to imitate the effect of having smoke blown in your face), right before the slow drums and the booming bass drop in. It’s disconcerting at first, especially considering how it seems like a bit of an old-school torch song at first. I really didn’t know what to make of this one at first – I thought it completely obliterated any sense of flow that the album had built up for itself (which had already been kind of damaged with the disjointed ending of “Bad Guy”), but I slowly came to realize it’s actually one of my favorites. There’s something about the slow, loose rhythm and the dirty, distorted production technique that I find oddly alluring, and despite the weird placement near the front of the album, this is always one of the songs I end up looking forward to hearing the most. As alarming as it may be that teenagers taking antidepressants recreationally has become a common enough thing for them to have a slang term for Xanax, there’s something refreshing about Billie’s honest assessment of that scene holding no appeal for her. She’s become the designated driver for her crazy friends by default, and she’s bored out of her mind and wondering what the entire point of these shenanigans is. It’s not a preachy anti-drug message by any means, but the song quite accurately depicts the state of mind of someone who would rather be anywhere else, having real, meaningful conversations with people who are at least halfway sane.
4. You Should See Me in a Crown
Badass boast #2 is up next – this one’s not quite as audacious as “Bad Guy”, but it’s probably got the most startling use of bass on the entire album, borrowing a few tricks from dubstep as the lowest of the audible low-end sounds rattles the listener during the chorus. Again, this happens after a rather sparse lead-in – in this case a rather misty opening verse that finds her lying in wait until just the right moment to attack. She gets a rise out of putting the listener in a dark place and then giving them a good jump scare, and she’s doing it with such a strong, catchy chorus that I really can’t complain. This time around she’s menacing in the sense that an unrelenting, conquering queen would be menacing. Nothing overtly sexual about it – it’s just raw power. You don’t know when she’s going to unleash her armies to ransack your village, but you know it’s bound to happen eventually. What actually surprises me about this song is that despite how iconic it is, it actually doesn’t last very long. From the first big release of tension about a minute in, to the abrupt end of the song, it’s maybe two more minutes. I feel like this one was robbed of an epic climax, just for the sake of punching the lights out before the listener expected it. That’s my only real complaint here.
5. All the Good Girls Go to Hell
I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the slow fade-ins at the beginning of some of these songs. On this one in particular, I feel like it further sabotages the album’s momentum, especially when “Crown” ended so suddenly. Now, I haven’t talked a ton about live instrumentation yet, but it’s been there in the background of the last few songs – maybe a little piano or a quietly strummed guitar taking a back seat to the louder songs when a hook really kicks in, certainly some live drums to augment the programming. This is the first track where I really notice it, though. The piano and bass guitar dominate, and the synths feel like more of an accent, all giving this bouncy song a bit of a naughty, vampy vibe that goes well with the title. I haven’t fully figured out what Billie means by good girls going to hell, or whether she’s just playing around with our stereotypical images of God and the Devil just to mess with us. It may be some sort of a debate between good and evil celestial beings over whether to save a human race that seems intent upon destroying itself. That would certainly explain the lines about water rising and fires burning in California. (She’s from L.A., so she would certainly know about our infamous wildfires. More specifically, she’s from Highland Park, a neighborhood right down the street from where I went to college – a fact which I only bring up because she was born two and a half freaking years after I graduated from college. Damn, I’m old.) I have to admit that I don’t respond as strongly to this one, even though I do love the slick piano and bass, and I find it amusing when it devolves into a fake horn solo and a bit of childish laughter and studio chatter at the end: “I cannot do the snowflake!” Billie and her brother may have left some weird in-jokes in the margins that only they understand, but it helps give the album an atmosphere of two people having fun in a makeshift studio. So I don’t mind it.
6. Wish You Were Gay
So yeah… the title of this one generated some controversy. I’m gonna have to tread lightly here, because this is a song that I genuinely enjoy, and I appreciate how Billie was kind of making fun of her 14-year-old self and how she responded to her feelings getting hurt by a disinterested guy when she wrote it, but I can also appreciate how someone who actually is gay might take this to be an annoying bait-and-switch, given that it’s about a one-sided heterosexual crush. I’m straight, so I don’t get to decide whether they should be offended or not, but I can say that I honestly don’t see any malicious intent on Billie’s part. The way she sings the song is actually rather sweet, in a sad way (and cleverly written – there’s a descending numeric countdown in both verses that I didn’t even notice the first few times through because I was trying to get a handle on why she would wish someone was gay), and the acoustic guitar accompaniment gives it a very personal, baring your soul on a stool in a coffee ship sort of feel. The point of this one is that the guy completely blowing her off would be a lot easier to take if she knew he was gay, because then she would rationalize that he doesn’t like girls at all, so it’s not a knock on her in any way. But because he’s not (or at least, not as far as she knew at the time – the guy came out later, which isn’t addressed in the song), it makes her feel inadequate, and she’s tempted to respond with petty sour grapes. She was fourteen years old, people – how many of us responded maturely to disinterested crushes when we were that age? I love how this one turns a corner from its simple acoustic strumming to a forceful stomp-stomp-clap beat in the chorus. Even in what sounds like it’s going to be a back-to-basics folk-pop sort of tune, Finneas found a way to pull another one of his sneak attacks with the production.
7. When the Party’s Over
I had completely overlooked this one on the first several listens. Nothing wrong with it – it was just a quiet piano ballad that didn’t do anything noticeably weird or forceful with its production values like so many of the other tracks did. After paying closer attention to it, I realized there was nothing basic about this one, though – Billie’s voice is quite beautifully layered against the stark piano, almost as if she’s singing in a cathedral or some other majestically large space. There are some little electronic tinges on the backing vocals here and there, probably some other sounds Finneas has tweaked that I still haven’t fully appreciated, but I have definitely come to appreciate how much this one plays with texture and negative space. It’s a bit of a lament, seeming to happen in that dark, depressing space between the end of a raging party and the reckoning to come the next morning when everyone realizes how hungover they are and how much of a mess they have to clean up. Billie’s singing is sad and sorrowful, breaking into falsetto at a few points, and I get the impression that she’s bounced on yet another awful party after the guy she was interested in made a complete ass of himself. Despite her best attempts to save him from himself, she seems like she’s ready to cut bait, mourn the loss of a love that never amounted to much anyway, and move on.
Hey, what happened to our dark, brooding Billie? Did someone replace her with a miniature clone of Zooey Deschanel? The bright ukulele chords, and pitch-shifted vocals made to sound like Billie had recorded this song back when she was just a small child (you know, all the way back in the 2000s) are certainly a shock to the system given everything we’ve heard so far. It’s a nice little moment of levity where the album could probably use some, and don’t worry, that uncannily high-pitched voice doesn’t stick around for the entire song, you do get to hear Billie’s actual voice sing most of it. This one has a similar vibe to “Wish You Were Gay”, in the sense that it brings a slow drum and bass groove into an otherwise acoustic song for the chorus, and also in the sense that Billie’s hoping to be noticed by someone who just seems to be in an entirely different universe from her, and it makes her feel small and sad. Which I guess is why she manipulated her voice to sound like a kid.
9. My Strange Addiction
The “Bad Guy” vibe is back here, though it’s a bit subdued. Billie is definitely reveling in something that she knows is unhealthy for her, but she does it with a lighter touch, as if sneaking around and hoping no one will figure out what she’s up to. it’s like she’s stalking the person she likes in secret, I guess. The music combines a deliberately cheesy synth/keyboard riff with a mid-tempo programmed beat to help achieve this effect, where you’re not sure if it’s meant to be cutesy or alarming. I would actually like this song if not for one fatal flaw, and that would be the copious use of audio samples from The Office episode “Threat Level Midnight”. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the show (because how could I say no to the episode where Michael Scott’s fantasy of making a spy thriller starring himself, that had been referenced numerous times throughout the series, finally gets completed and shown to everyone in the office?), but it has absolutely nothing to do with the lyrics as far as I can tell. The snippets included are oddly specific to the plot and characters of the show (and the fake movie within that particular episode), making it hard to separate my memory of that episode from my evaluation of a song that does not appear to be about an obsession with the show, nor a piece of fanfic about its characters. This isn’t a bad song, but I’d definitely enjoy it a lot more if this whole Office tangent had never been necessary.
10. Bury a Friend
Here’s another song that I found really off-putting at first, but gradually had to admit I kind of liked. I should have known by this far into the album not to assume that Billie’s lyrics were (a) factual re-tellings of her real life experiences, and (b) meant to be taken at face value regardless. Still, this chillingly ominous song in which the phrase “I wanna, I wanna end me” is repeated multiple times originally led me to believe it was being rather cavalier about the subject of suicide. There is a track on this album that addresses the subject head-on, but this ain’t it. Here, I think she’s having a very bad dream (hence the album title, which comes from the chorus of this song), and the perspective is flipping back and forth between her and a “monster under the bed” type character that may be the personification of sleep paralysis, a very real phenomenon that she has actually experienced. The syncopated rhythm, light percussion, and a surprisingly sing-song-y chorus all tease at it being a playful pop song, but the muted percussion and the eerie, electronic screeching sounds that jump in every now and then give the impression that we’re walking through a hallway or tunnel of some sort that isn’t fully lit. We can’t see all the details, and something scary might jump out at us at any moment. Taking all of this in context, it sounds like the only way for Billie to be freed from her nightmare is to kill someone within the dream – whether that’s an actual friend, the monster that is taunting her, or herself, is a question I can’t answer. In some ways the song reminds me of the dilemma presented in the movie Inception, where delving down into so many layers of meticulously constructed dreams has some of the characters wondering if what they think is the “top” level is actually real, with one character being driven to suicide in an attempt to wake themselves up. All of that is to say, this is dark stuff, and the poppy aspects of it make it that much more sinister.
Believe it or not, this was the first track on the album that I really gravitated to. It’s one of the more innocent-sounding ones, and probably not one that would grab as much attention as some of the big singles for most folks – I’d even call it “cute”, at least when you detach it from the context of the rather frightening songs on either side of it. It’s a short, mellow, electropop piece that sounds a bit like it could be the soundtrack to a video game – which is intentional, since it’s named after an actual puzzle game called “Ilomilo” in which the goal is to unite two characters named “Ilo” and “Milo” who are stranded on either side of each level. (I’ve never played it, but from that description alone, it sounds right up my alley.) Billie sticks to the meeker side of her voice here, like a lost little girl calling out to a friend, who is too afraid to come out of the shadows and actually look for them. Being detached from someone you love, and not being sure if you’ll ever find them again, is the underlying fear that drives the song, and there’s a direct lyrical reference to “Bury a Friend” in here, which reminds me that the juxtaposition of these two songs, as different in character as they may be, was fully intentional.
12. Please Before I Go
The last three songs on the album are by far the mellowest, and they comprise a trilogy of sorts, at least in the sense that the titles form a complete thought when strung together. The primary instrument here is the piano, and even though it’s played quite slowly and sparsely, there are some deliciously unusual chords here that remind me of the after-dark feel of Kimbra‘s recent acoustic EP, featuring somber and slightly jazzier arrangements of a few of her songs. Billie is imagining a person driven to the very end of despair, standing on a rooftop and being ready to jump, slowly singing an apology to her loved ones while taking a deep breath and preparing to take her plunge into the abyss. It’s a tear-jerker for sure, punctuated by brief moments of terror when Finneas brings these long, low, smeared-out bass notes into the mix, as if to punch the listener right in the gut and remind them that the song may be a sweetly melancholy, but the suicide is not to be romanticized. As the song slowly creeps toward its end and the apologies for what she’s about to do turn into non-apologies and then back again, it’s almost like she’s conflicted and stalling for time, hoping someone will show up and stop her from actually going through with it. But then we hear the sirens wailing in the distance… and cruel silence. DAAAAAAMN, Billie. That’s dark. Quite possibly an “I’m not sure how old my kid would need to be for me to feel totally comfortable with her listening to this on her own” level of dark, but that doesn’t mean I love the song any less.
13. I Love You
The last full-fledged song on the album is also a slow stunner. This time a beautifully finger-picked acoustic guitar leads the way, and once again the chord progression is delicate and arresting. We’ve clearly changed perspectives here, as Billie is now singing about someone she has fallen in love with, but is trying with all of her might to resist admitting it to. Maybe because that person is somewhere far away (which would seem to be the case when she laments the difficulty of having to fly to see them in the second verse, and a flight attendant speaking over an intercom can be heard in the background), or maybe because that person isn’t even on this Earth any more? That would give it a depressing, yet thematically satisfying, connection to “Listen Before I Go”. Aside from some vocal layering that hits all the right emotional notes as the melody builds and builds and finally releases the tension in the song’s simple chorus of “I love you… and I don’t want to”, there aren’t any sneak attacks in the production this time around. No ominous bass. No weird vocal manipulation. Just a jaw-droppingly lovely folk song that shows a level of maturity I’d expect most artist to be many more albums into their career (and probably at least twice Billie’s age) to finally reach. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the song I’d pick to introduce your average person to Billie Eilish, because I feel like you need to hear some of her weirder stuff first, and go through this album’s sometimes creepy and gut-wrenching journey, in order for this song to have the intended impact. But it’s definitely my favorite on the album, and I’m excited to learn that it’s one of hers as well. My heart just soars when I listen to this one. She truly saved the best for last (well, almost last).
The final track, which is sung almost acapella, didn’t impress me much at first. I just thought it was a bunch of disjointed phrases with a barely there melody, and perhaps Billie acting as her own somber choir was interesting, but after two incredibly sparse and beautiful songs, I wasn’t really up for a sparse and underwritten one. What I hadn’t appreciated until I listened to the album a few times was that, save for a brief intro, every single line of this song is a quote from an earlier song on the album, in reverse sequence. So she starts with “I Love You” and goes through all the way back to “Bad Guy”, and even though this might not make sense as a linear statement, it feels like she’s flipping back through her memories, going over all of the cause and effect, trying to figure out how she got to this dark corner of her mind where we are now ending the record. Suddenly all of my complaints about the record feeling disjointed in places and the track order being a bit weird melt away… she did all of this on purpose with this little bookend in mind, and I have to respect that. It’s not a happy ending, for sure, but the tone of it seems to suggest that she’s discovered some clarity through playing out this whole bizarre, schizophrenic experience.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bad Guy $1.25
You Should See Me in a Crown $1.25
All the Good Girls Go to Hell $.75
Wish You Were Gay $1.50
When the Party’s Over $1
My Strange Addiction $.50
Bury a Friend $1
Please Before I Go $1.50
I Love You $2
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: