Billie Eilish Takes a Somnambulist Excursion on ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’
Los Angeles singer-songwriter Billie Eilish is homeschooled, vegan, and has “Pirate” as a middle name, which should give you some idea of her particular mold of pop. She was named an “Up Next” artist by Apple Music after her 2017 debut EP “Don’t Smile At Me,” and devotes much of her first full length album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” to contemplating whether or not she actually wants to be smiled at. To her credit, this is enough to inspire a satisfying set of punchy pop songs with a distinctive style. Moreover, Eilish throws curveballs throughout the recording, ultimately assuming an entirely unanticipated form. Eilish’s brother Finneas O’Connell, known for releasing his own music as Finneas and his role as Alistair in the Fox TV series “Glee,” co-wrote and produced the album, and there’s a palpable chemistry in the songs befitting a brother and sister team.
The opening skit “!!!!!!” functions as a sort of disclaimer for any silliness that follows, lest you take anything too seriously. It’s actually a pretty clever stratagem, as by poking fun at herself, Eilish clears the way for her to frolic freely for the duration of the album, comfortable in the defense that this is all merely a bit of fun. The track documents the ceremonial removal of Eilish’s invisalign retainer. Giggling, she declares, “I have taken out my invisalign, and this is the album.” It’s a fitting introduction, as most of the songs on the record have a spur-of-the-moment feel, as if whimsically whipped up without too much belaboring. “Bad Guy” takes off, and Eilish settles immediately into a sonic space all of her own. It’s an unassuming, uncluttered sound that shines from its simplicity. Front and center is Eilish’s breathy voice, so wispy that it might just get whisked away amid a busier beat. She basically whispers everything, and it makes for a stirringly sultry sound. Halfway through, she’s still at it, and one wonders whether she’s going to just do this the whole time. Sure enough, she does — an entire album of whispering. And why not?
As for the lyrics, they match the sound just about right. Eilish tries to be sexy with as little effort as possible. There are tawdry, racy lyrics like, “I like it when you take control,” with the twist that Eilish claims herself to be “the bad guy.” “Xanny” starts with a lone vocal that sounds like it should maybe have stayed a voice memo. Then a distorted bass drops, and Eilish’s voice rattles and warbles from the impact. Suddenly, it’s all quite radical and exhilarating. Her listless vocals over the dragging beat simultaneously mimics a “xanny” sensation and expresses Eilish’s bored dissatisfaction with the craze. Lines like “Don’t give me a Xanny now or ever” aren’t the most creative, but neither are monikers like “Lil Xan.” At any rate, it’s a timely message.
There’s a jazzy quality to Eilish’s phrasing that comes out in her more whimsical moments, but it’s always streamlined and understated, making for a bold, sharp sound. “You Should See Me In a Crown” places her over trap high hats and throbbing bass for an infectious combination. The production seems to take a hint or two from aughts hip-hop and R&B — Timbaland, Neptunes, etc., a trend that grows especially overt on “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” Songs like this and the following “Wish You Were Gay” recall Gwen Stefani’s 2004 album “Love. Angel. Music. Baby” in virtually every way imaginable, from the pouty lip singing to the ghetto fabulous posturing. The latter song seems designed to cause confusion, as Eilish isn’t gay. The premise is that Eilish was once rejected by a guy, and wished she could save her self esteem by reasoning, “He must be gay.”
All frivolity aside, Eilish has a very becoming voice, and on tracks like “When the Party’s Over,” when she steps outside her whispering shtick, she makes an impressive display. She has a way of rounding off her vowels to an effect that somehow ends up conjuring Swedish singers like Lykke Li. “8” is a bit twee, with baby-voice vocals and beachy acoustic guitar strumming. The song could be a response to the album title, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” as it finds Eilish carelessly drifting through shifting soundscapes like a somnambulist. Then, she goes full Destiny’s Child for “Strange Addiction.” Eilish has a knack for piecing together effortless pop songs, and this is a case in point.
“Bury a Friend” is a definite standout, showcasing Eilish at her most deviously quirky. With lyrics like “Why don’t you run from me?…Why aren’t you scared of me?” the song is, according to Eilish, written from the perspective of the monster under her bed. Over a skeletal stomp with carnivalesque stylings and horrorshow effects, Eilish gets cryptic, gothic, twisted, all the while still decidedly poppy. There’s a recurring theme of blurred lines between pursuer and pursued, bleeding into the next song “Ilomilo,” with lines like “Let you rescue me the day I met you.” At this point, the music has fleshed out considerably from the album’s scanty beginnings. Things take a cinematic turn upon the poignant and intimate “Listen Before I Go.” In a more serious spin on the decided levity of the invisalign intro, Eilish sings, “Tell me love is endless / don’t be so pretentious.” There’s immaculate attention to detail in the ambiance, and the track is an emotional apex.
“I Love You” features Eilish’s brother Finneas on vocal harmonies, and seems to borrow heavily from Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” in parts of its melody. Eilish continues her nebulous cat-and-mouse antics, now going so far as to complain about being told the titular statement, “Baby, won’t you take it back? / Say you were tryna make me laugh.” The ethereal, choir-laden “Goodbye” sustains the bittersweet note, panning out steadily to a litany of references to earlier tracks, with Eilish affirming, “All the good girls go to hell,” and “I’m the bad guy.”
“When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” is an album that creeps up on you. What starts off as a vapid stumbling about escalates ultimately into a dark, twisted, tragicomic tale. While every track is enjoyable, there are clearly those that seem relative throwaways. This isn’t to discredit them per se, as they make for welcome, lighthearted diversions. What’s awkward is the overall patchiness. It’s very much what you would expect from the casual introductory skit. Yet, by the end, things have reached such an intensity that the album might have been altogether more satisfying without some of the airy filler. At any rate, it’s an interesting hodgepodge of musical instincts, and overall an infectious set of songs.
“When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” is available March 29 on Apple Music.