For those of who may not know, Billie Eilish is a teen pop icon, but not your typical 17-year-old pop star. She was 13 when she recorded her first viral hit “Ocean Eyes” with her brother at home. Over the last year, her anonymity has evaded her, with her Instagram nearing 16 million followers and her music gaining wider recognition, appearing on late night shows and movie soundtracks. At 17 with a billion streams, she’s found her way to the mainstream with the release of her debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?.
Eilish reaches fame at a point where teen pop is losing the strange, problematic sex appeal that’s been associated with it since “…Baby One More Time.” Given the very independent and digital nature of her rise, it only makes sense — her appeal was never attached to any sense of sexiness. She never had to adhere to any sort of archetype the way stars like Miley Cyrus had to. Eilish’s appeal presents itself in a sense of realness, how much her words feel like those of a 17-year-old. She’ll look you dead in the eye with a resting bitch face in Instagram photos and (at least pretend she) won’t give a shit if you don’t like her. She has approached her celebrity differently from artists like Lana Del Rey, The Weeknd and Odd Future who built their own multifaceted universe for fans to delve into and obsess over through merchandise, social media and song references. Given the context, the album is imbued in all the teen angst you’d expect from a 17-year-old. But don’t think that leaves Eilish’s work void of any artistic merit.
The music streams by like a static, ambient sheet that crinkles abruptly. At points, there’s an instrumental sameness, one sound carrying a song nearly all the way through. This isn’t to say the song lacks variety, but that there’s a large dependency on syncopation. It’s a hazy, subtle sound composed of sparse 808’s, a vaguely trappy beat or twinkly percussion and a muffled, mumbly voice. But the beat switch-ups are prominent and unexpected, occurring sometimes in the middle of a song (think more Swimming by Mac Miller, less “Sicko Mode”). Namely, there’s the latest single “bad guy” that quickly turns from the playful, blithe sneering of a former partner to a dark, investment in his loneliness expressed in the lyrics as well as the beat. There are also surprisingly tactful splashes of jazz that blend into some of the songs to elevate the playful, more friendly demeanor behind this otherwise solemn and evocative album.
The album has its moments of playful gusto. It starts with introduction “!!!!!!!,” featuring slurping noises followed by Eilish exclaiming, “I have taken out my invisalign!” We are reassured that this is indeed a serious album by the time we reach the second track, though glimmers of goofiness shine throughout the first half of the project, “all the good girls go to hell” ending with Eilish humming out the last few beats in the song and yelling out, “I cannot do this snowflake!” in a mocking voice. An undercurrent of anxiety and trepidation creeps around the content. “xanny” mocks the party anthem but ponders the possibility of drug use and overdose, asking “what is it about them?” Similarly, “all the good girls go to hell” is sly in its exploration of menace but zones in on real world issues like sea levels rising and forests burning in California.
The second half takes a more despondent turn. The tempo is noticeably slower, somber almost ballad like at some points. Here, Eilish takes on more personal topics, the music bleak, sparse, almost detached but emotive in lyricism. The fears expressed in the first half are revisited here, amplified and put into perspective. “listen before i go” is a standout track, a quivering, sheer beat echoing in the back along with vague sirens and chattering following the opening line, “Take me to the rooftop.” She croons, “Call my friends and tell them that I love them / And I’ll miss them, but I’m not sorry,” helplessly. “ilomilo” is another highlight, formerly teased in the “bury a friend” music video with its danceable intro that slowly dwindles to a gloomy, shivering percussion.
Despite the shifts and nontraditional risks WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? takes, it proves a strong debut from Billie Eilish that appeals beyond the artist’s brand. It operates as a progression towards a dispirited end, but with elegance and nuance, tying the whole craft into one cohesive masterpiece. Despite her age and the angsty hype surrounding Eillish’s celebrity, her first album proves that she is a force to be reckoned with in the music world.