Pop music has always been shaped by teenage renegades. Kate Bush made her auspicious debut at the age of 19 with “Wuthering Heights”; Britney Spears released “... Baby One More Time” just before turning 17. Tyler, the Creator and his boisterous teen crew, Odd Future, birthed a generation of punks with their anarchic rap, and Lorde came to prominence at only 16 with her No. 1 single “Royals”.
Gen Z’s offering to the canon is Billie Eilish, the 17-year-old Los Angeleno who rose to prominence as an Instagram star before going viral on SoundCloud with her debut single “Ocean Eyes”. Now with some two billion Spotify streams to her name, as well as three Australian top 10 singles – thanks to her ubiquity on youth broadcaster Triple J – Eilish has just released When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, her first full-length album. If all goes to plan, it will be her anointment as an A-list pop star.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is fairly unconventional, as far as pop debuts go. Free of guest appearances and written and produced largely by Eilish and her brother, Finneas, there is a sense of singularity across the set. This is not to say that Eilish doesn’t draw inspiration from outside sources – there’s plenty here drawn from the well of other off-kilter pop stars – but it feels as though she had full creative control over the record’s final cut, not always a given in the world of major-label pop.
This kind of control is not necessarily a good thing. Pop made by committee is so common because it works well, and attempts at auteurism often lead to artistic bloat. When it works, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? showcases Eilish as a fearsome talent, a star with charisma in spades. When it doesn’t, you can’t help but wish that someone else had been in the room to rein the record in.
In its ghoulish cover art and nocturnal production, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? positions itself as a kind of macabre counterpoint to the lightweight aesthetics of modern pop. If Eilish’s musical genealogy can be traced back to two musicians, they would be Lorde, who perfected bloodied teen fantasias on her sophomore album, Melodrama, and Kanye West, who has made a career out of his increasingly abrasive, scorched-earth production style.
Eilish is most at home when channelling this mix of menace and malice, as on early single “You Should See Me in a Crown”, which features a recurring sample of a knife being sharpened. Beginning as a ballad in the style of “Ocean Eyes”, the track soon shatters into a jarringly aggressive chorus of trap hats and buzz-saw synths. This kind of move is wonderfully audacious and, while it scans as something of a cheap trick on paper, Eilish’s bitchy put-downs that punctuate the song’s chorus – “You should see me in a crown / Your silence is my favourite sound” – sell it.
Lead single “Bury a Friend” is an absolute humdinger of a house track that proves Eilish to be a canny writer and producer. “Bury a Friend” is dance music as horror soundtrack; over a pulsating 4/4 beat, Eilish unravels a tangle of near-whispered taunts and threats:
Step on the glass
Staple your tongue
Bury a friend
Try to wake up
Killing the son
The lyrics play out as creepy, hallucinatory word association, carrying more implied weight than actual terror. Coming from a 17-year-old, Eilish’s embrace of violent turns of phrase and dark themes may seem a little disingenuous. In reality, there are few others equipped to write such gory fantasy without hesitation; the teenage mind tends to gravitate towards carnage and chaos. Eilish and Finneas display a certain mastery of atmosphere on “Bury a Friend”. Screams and sounds of nails on a chalkboard punctuate the verses. The British rapper Crooks provides uncredited ad-libs that are more ghost than grime star. Sometimes, the song will cut out entirely, replaced by chunks of white noise or sub-bass. In fact, “Bury a Friend” is so impressive that those coming to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? off the back of it may find themselves disappointed by the rest of the record. It’s a soaring high that is rarely matched by the other 13 songs.
More often than not, Eilish simply fails to capitalise on sound concepts. “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”, a kind of spiritual update on Lana Del Rey’s “This Is What Makes Us Girls”, rides on a great – if somewhat inexplicable – chorus of “All the good girls go to hell / ’Cause even God herself has enemies”. But the track loses steam halfway through. “Wish You Were Gay” – about a crush Eilish had, who she wished was gay so he had a “real” reason not to be interested in her – has the potential to be a venomous kiss-off. Instead, it falls flat in a muddle of acoustic guitar and sitcom-style canned laughter. Without adequate padding, “Wish You Were Gay” just seems like clickbait.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? tends to lose itself at its most earnest moments. The ukulele ballad “8”, for example, tries to escape the trappings of a YouTube cover artist by pitch-shifting Eilish’s vocals. But lyrics such as “You said don’t treat me badly / But you said it so sadly” don’t help the cause. On an album so steeped in a uniquely violent cynicism, this kind of Jason Mraz-style sincerity reads as, well, cynical. Similarly, piano ballad “Listen Before I Go”, the only “straight’” song on an album full of curios, sounds bland by comparison.
Eilish’s voice is at times coloured with a kind of soulful affectation many pop singers – Maren Morris comes to mind, as does Taylor Swift more recently – have woven into their sound. When Eilish employs it, she becomes anonymous. And considering that she fights tooth and nail to stand out from the pack with this album, anonymity doesn’t seem like a great result. The soulfulness isn’t always a killer, though. “Xanny” is among the album’s highlights, a lullaby-style ballad about prescription drug use that applies harsh vocoder to Eilish’s voice until it cracks and splinters. The song’s traditional balladry and Eilish’s robotic vocals recall St. Vincent’s 2009 record Actor, which also hinged on this kind of ugly beauty.
The centrepiece of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is “When the Party’s Over”. It is also the track that feels the most out of place. There are no fictional conceits or production flashes guiding this track, as there are for so many of the other songs on the record; instead, “When the Party’s Over” is pure, unmediated heartbreak – a song about walking away from a relationship after having your heart crushed. Halfway through, as Eilish asserts a wavering dominance over her former paramour, a distorted voice says what she really means: “Call me back.” Those three words constitute an emotional flaying. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? contains a lot of carnage. At her best, though, Eilish doesn’t need tricks to
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 30, 2019 as "Eilish in wonderland".
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