WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, the debut full-length album of pop-prodigy Billie Eilish, begins with the slurping sound of Eilish removing her Invisalign. She proclaims, “My Invisalign has been…”
Her 21 year old brother Finneas, who co-writes their songs, chimes in, “I have taken out my Invisalign…”
“I have taken out my Invisalign and here is the album!” Eilish says, and the two cackle for another five or so seconds before we launch in “Bad Guy.”
Eilish is seventeen years old. Her first hit, “Ocean Eyes,” was recorded and popularized when she was only thirteen. While youth might be considered a handicap, Eilish maintains a certain control over her online aesthetic with the naturalistic grace of someone who has grown up in the internet age. Her clothing is super-trendy- baggy. She combines recognizable name brand designers and layers of chains and rings with thrift-store chic. Her hair is long, straight, and currently dark turquoise. Although Eilish smiles, jokes, and charms in interviews, nearly every photo shows her brooding or pouting. We experience a slew of Eilish-related experiences across many different mediums: she has recently collaborated with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to produce a bright and terrifying anime music video for “You Should See Me In A Crown.” For her album release party, she created the Billie Eilish experience, an interactive museum where each room immerses its visitor in one song from the album.
However, despite her purposefully self-curated image, Eilish never seems disingenuous or superficial. Someone recently asked me if the Invisalign introduction was some subtle branding, and my initial reaction was an emphatic ‘no!’ despite my lack of evidence either way. Although she has nearly sixteen million followers on instagram, she doesn’t smack of influencer. Eilish, furthermore, has harnessed—perhaps incidentally—the new ways in and new platforms from which we listen to songs. She is unintentionally famous from SoundCloud and has released only singles and a small EP on Spotify. However, her songs have millions of hits and have reached the Billboard 100; she has accrued a strong and broad following that eagerly waited for WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? to drop.
Even beyond the reference to Invisalign (the “Bad Guy” music video, by the way, begins with Eilish taking out her Invisalign and placing it in the hands of a black-clad body-guard figure) Eilish brings her youthful knowledge of pop-culture to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?. Her new album contains a collection of cultural references that could practically carbon-date it to the 2010s. “My Strange Addiction”, an album highlight, references not only TLC’s popular show but contains various clips from an episode of The Office; “You Should See Me in a Crown’s” title is in reference to the villainous Morarity from 2010’s Sherlock. More seriously, Billie Eilish’s D.A.R.E ready slow jam “xanny” is an intimate look at Eilish’s alienation from the dominant party-culture, focusing on the dominating and dangerous popular obsession with opioids. She sings, “In the second-hand smoke/ Still just drinking canned Coke/ I don’t need a xanny to feel better.”
Eilish, as Caitlin Kelley of Forbes points out, is “a critical darling.” Her album currently has an 80 out 100 rating on Metacritic. Thomas Smith of NME called it “A brave and resounding first step for an artist with bags of potential.” He continued that, “Over the next decade, you’ll no doubt see popular music scrabbling to try and replicate what this album does on every level.” David Grohl of Nirvana, noting that his daughters love Eilish, compared Eilish to his own band. “People say, ‘Is rock dead?’” Grohl said in a recent interview with Variety. “When I look at someone like Billie Eilish, rock and roll is not close to dead!” Like her inspirations: Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and Naked-era Avril Lavigne (a trio who Eilish is sometimes overly compared to in order to, unfairly undercut her originality), Eilish’s new album is heartfelt, deeply personal, and more slow and careful than poppy and commercial (although sometimes it is that as well). At the end of “xanny,” Eilish sighs deeply and, just as the listener feels the sincerity of her jokes with her brother, here, the listener feels her frustration.
And, like Lorde and Lana Del Rey, a sameness can sometimes pervade her album. She whisper-growls a lot, and her sound, while original, is heavily produced and not super capacious. However, where Eilish deviates from other critical acclaimed young pop stars is where she seems to be strongest. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO?, in Eilish’s own words, is about fear, and her lyrics run the gamut from the painful–“The friends I’ve had to bury, they keep me up at night”–to love-sick–“I tore my shirt to stop you bleeding/ but nothing ever stops you leaving”–to the irreverent “Step on the glass/ staple your tongue (argh!)” However, she never fails to be, put simply, creepy. The whole album seems somehow claustrophobic, as though Eilish is whispering into your ear during a very stormy night. Take, for instance, “My Strange Addiction,” which ends with another clip from The Office. Michael Scott asks, “Did you like that” and Holly responds “um…which part?” The final line is somehow haunting in a way that the show never intended.
Her music videos add to this experience. “Bury a Friend” features Eilish playing out a whole host of nightmarish figures—she is the monster under the bed and the possessed child levitating with sneakered feet just scraping the ground before twisting in an insane back-breaking pose taken straight from a horror movie. At different points, black latex gloves grab at her face, rip the shirt from her back and inject her with dozens of needles. In “You Should See Me In A Crown,” tarantulas crawl around her, and eventually one emerges from her mouth. The effect is haunting and puts the viewer in a trance that, I, at least, do not want to leave.
It is in how Eilish unsettles her listener that seems to be at the heart of WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’s critical and popular success. The album contains the same thrills and chills as a horror movie, and solidifies the appearance of an original, innovative, and very current star.
Low Notes: I agree with The Guardian’s assessment. “I Love You” deserves praise because, like her breakout hit “Ocean Eyes,” places her singing voice at the forefront. It is stripped down and less produced than the other songs. However, the bridge sounds, rather distractingly, a lot like Hallelujah. “8”s plucky ukulele chord is reminiscent of the guitar-heavy “I wish u were gay” and an earlier Eilish song, “Party Favor.” However, “8” seems a little saccharine in ways that the other two do not— “i wish u were gay’s” problematic, tone-deaf title bracketed.
Some Personal Favorites: The singles from this album are, I believe, well chosen. “Bury a Friend”’s creepy, nursery rhyme beat sets the stage for Eilish’s album. “When the party’s over” is beautiful, delicate and sincere. “ilomilo,” which takes its title from Eilish’s favorite computer game, is one of Eilish’s favorite, and taps deep into fears of love and loss. “Listen before you go” has a quiet, sensual and almost jazzy, appeal. “Bad Guy” is Eilish’s most commercially viable song and undeniably catchy.