Review: Billie Eilish's “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”
Last week, I didn’t even know what an Invisalign was, let alone that it would be referenced in the 14-second intro track of one of 2019’s most highly-anticipated albums.
From what I can gather, Billie Eilish is the music industry’s most recent example of lightning striking twice.
Comparisons to her precursor Lorde are nigh unavoidable—both artists underwent their meteoric ascents to international fame around the unprecedented age of 16, renowned for their eerie-yet-catchy pop melodies performed with their hauntingly soft voices.
Don’t be fooled, though—Eilish and Lorde exemplify a divergent vocal evolution, where Eilish relies more heavily on beats and harmonics, Lorde’s production is decidedly more minimalist, her lyrics often evoking poetic imagery.
That being said, what truly separates the two is that unlike the decidedly inoffensive Lorde, Eilish seems to be developing into pop’s latest and greatest provocateur, a fact that becomes evident simply by looking at the track-list of “WHERE WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”.
For example, provocative song titles like “all good girls go to hell”, “wish you were gay” and “my strange addiction” desperately seek to grab a listener’s attention as they absentmindedly scroll through Spotify playlists.
One thing in particular I noticed after listening through the album a few times is Eilish’s firm grasp of current-day high school culture.
Unlike her fellow pop artists like Ariana Grande or Halsey that target the late-teen/young adult demographic, Eilish holds a distinct advantage over her competitors in that she is the same age as her intended audience—she knows exactly what teens want because she’s a teen herself.
References to adolescent culture pop up all throughout the album, from the gratuitous sampling of hit show “The Office” throughout “my strange addiction”, to a track titled “xanny”, referencing the overwhelming abuse among teens of the prescription drug Xanax, to the blatantly edgy lyrics throughout the album that reference everything from promiscuity (the chorus of “bad guy”) to the occult (particularly evident in “bury a friend” and “all the good girls go to hell,” unsurprisingly).
As for the actual sound of the album, Eilish’s distinctive vocals do much of the heavy lifting. The least polarizing aspect of the album is likely Eilish’s vocal talents, which—despite her youth—should not be understated.
Several tracks utilize distortions of Eilish’s voice to great effect, such as the 8D-filtered and bass synth-infused chorus of “xanny”, or the high-pitch, almost infantile vocals in the first verse of “8.”
Much can be said of the album’s third and most prominent single, “bury a friend,” from the one-word croaks of Eilish’s friend and rapper Crooks that punctuate the song and contrast with Eilish’s soft and eerie vocals.
While snippets of snaps and kicks and heavier bass synths provide the backing production throughout the album, “bury a friend” is a shining example of synthesizing minimalist production with Eilish’s voice.
Cracking glass, creaking strings, squeaking drills and artificial screeches give “bury a friend” an unnerving vibe that underscores the constantly-pounding beat, resulting in a powerfully catchy track that is enjoyable, but poses a significant level of difficulty for those who wish to sing along.
Another of the album’s hits is “bad guy”, a playful track with a rhythmic beat seemingly made to entice its listeners to tap their toes in time with staccato snaps and rumbling bass.
Eilish’s voice never exceeds a whisper throughout the track, even as the tune transitions into its sinister reprise.
“xanny” is the first slow track on the album, resembling a lullaby with its soothing vocals and lower tempo, though the occasional blasts of bass are sure to keep a listener just aware enough to stay awake.
A good chunk of the album’s track-list features similar slower and reflective melodies, like “when the party’s over” and “ilomilo”, as well as the last three tracks, “listen before i go”, “i love you” and “goodbye”.
Each of these tracks—and especially “goodbye”, which closes the album with a series of lyrics from every other song, in reverse order—utilizes ethereal-sounding synths to evoke a feeling of drifting through a dreamscape, fittingly referencing both the album’s allusion to sleep and Eilish’s personal problems with going to sleep.
Unfortunately, not every segment of the album shines with the same degree of inventiveness—”all the good girls go to hell” and “wish you were gay” are indistinguishable from most conventional pop songs.
That’s not to say that they aren’t necessarily catchy—pop is specifically engineered to be catchy, after all—but neither track manages to deliver the same amount of payoff that the album’s more experimental successes embody.
If you can overlook Eilish’s propensity for profanity, there is some lyrical merit to be found scattered about the album, often taking the form of Eilish drawing from her own experiences—for example, her observation of others’ self-destruction in “xanny,” or a sense of loneliness and loss evident in “when the party’s over.”
While the album is enjoyable for the most part, Eilish has yet to fully capitalize on the niche that she embodies, and furthermore has yet to develop her distinct sound to better match her potential.
That being said, her efforts cannot go unlauded—I have no idea how a 17-year-old could make an album this cohesive to begin with, let alone one that for the most part is actually good.
I’d recommend the album to anyone who wants to get a better grasp of the current landscape of pop music or to those who wish to keep up with the times—like it or not, I feel that this album is going to be talked about a lot in the coming months.
However, if pop isn’t really your genre, or if you’re seeking lyrics with a message, it would likely benefit you to look elsewhere.