Billie Eilish - When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Review)

Martin_Canine
BILLIE EILISH
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
★★★★★

Don’t hug me, I’m scary

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While the debate who the greatest newcomer of the last couple of months is may be debatable (there is also Ava Max who brought pure non-genre-bending pop to a new level, or Mero, who fused technically perfect rap skills with catchy autotune hooks), there is no question left who claims the title as the weirdest one. Last year still an up and coming indie star, this year a full blown household name in countries all around the globe, there’s something truly creepy about Billie Eilish, the scariest aspect probably being how close she is to touching easy to categorize ground, but then always drifts off into the unsettlingly surreal.

She’s ALMOST your misfit-representing teen singer, a poppier, more indie version of an emo chick if you will, if it wasn’t for her insanely twisted aesthetics that she presents in ways we know from Marilyn Manson. There is one big difference though: while on a Manson record, we got a provocative horror show from beginning to end, a nightmarish vision of the American Dream gone wrong whose singer's words and voice appear to originate from an abstract bystander who’s not even physically real, Billie Eilish is far more relatable to the juvenile crowd. She IS really there, expressing her problems and her feelings, and being able to laugh and cry - and still she feels detached from any sort of time and space. She follows the same rules as the witches and ghosts in the terrific and terrifying films Suspiria (the original one by Dario Argento) or The Shining - she’s basically a constant set up for a jump scare that’s rarely about to actually come, making it all the more intense. The press has called her the female Lil Peep, the modern day Marilyn Manson and the younger Lana Del Rey, all at once, desperately trying to find ANYTHING that resembles her. But maybe the truth is, she is just one really messed up troubled young woman. We can’t tell how much of this attitude is real and how much is staged, but the most important part is… it works fantastically. Which is probably why her unpredictable, positively messy and straightforward scary debut album topped the American, British and Austrian charts, among others.

After a surprisingly light hearted 14 second intro dialogue that appears to be edited from studio leftovers (I assure nothing on the album will spark as much positivity), the album immediately starts with the big song. bad guy, with its pounding beat and snaps, was a massive hit in many countries, reaching several top ten positions in charts all over the world. And actually, for the most parts it actually blends well with the other music on the radio, although its vocals add that slight touch of indie flavor. A casual listener might even mistake it for a minimalistic groovy number about a tough girl who's a bit of a rebel. Those who decide to listen more carefully will notice a few more grotesque bits - the spooky ghost train synths, the mentioning of blood and bruises, and a strange show of dominance play in the second verse - and suddenly it comes off like an opening sequence to a horror flick. You know, those where a family is seen in an idyllic neighborhood, but within the context of the film you can kind of smell there's trouble around the corner. In this case, the narrative presents Billie as the submissive victim in a twisted relationship only to reveal she merely plays her part, and is in fact far sicker than him. It doesn't even take until the next track before the record shows its true character. After two and a half minutes, the mood and music change dramatically. A slow, distorted bass, cut off noises, slight moaning and whispering take over the formerly poppy music, with the singer straightforward questioning why someone would find her scary.

Some even assume what Eilish pulls off is a parody, combining every trope in popular music genres (including indie) and blowing it up to extreme proportions for unsettling effect. They may not be entirely wrong there. Much of Eilish’s disturbing aura is somewhat rooted in the phenomenon of the uncanny valley, as her music often _almost_ resembles something we fully "get". And that includes her vocals. While in the 2000s, vibrato and belting were what most singers showcased, the 2010s have gradually established a laid back, not always spot on and trippy delivery. Even in that time, Billie Eilish sounds dangerously numb. It's as if a demon took over her body during sleep and let her speak those lines. And that makes her so exciting. But there's even more to her than just tension.

Another standout track on the album is wish you were gay. It's essentially a slower, thoughtful pop song about an unhappy relationship, that even has her singing more conventionally in the chorus - but it's supported by sitcom tracks, including all the stock laughing and aaaawwws. That makes the entire tune, which would otherwise work great for a normal radio song, sound strangely artificial. It doesn't allow us to sink into the mood, by constantly reminding us what reaction the creators wanted to get out of us. Every piece of entertainment does that, and it usually tries to achieve that subtly. In a way, this approach makes us reflect on what we gladly let music do to us. Poppy would be proud of this execution of self aware pop.

Speaking of which, nothing on the album is as poppy as these two songs. Take xanny for example. For the most part a hypnotic, ultra-minimalistic ballad, that suddenly rips you out of your trance by occasionally adding bass that's so heavily boosted it interferes with everything else. Then there's the magnificent you should see me in a crown, one of the great songs 2018 had in store for us. This is s song that's truly captivating, and for a strange reason intimidating. Maybe because it starts with the sound of a knife being whetted, or maybe because its trippy verse blends into an industrial-like chorus that sounds like the score of a movie scene that has "danger" written all over it.

And of course we got bury a friend, a.k.a. the song that cemented Billie Eilish's status as an international superstar. This is where the creepshow reaches its peak, and at the same time it also perfectly shows the depth the singer-songwriter provides. Told from the perspective of the monster under the bed, it at first seems like a very well done thrill ride. Creepy sound fragments, strange editing and surreal wordings provide a nightmarish atmosphere, but that's most definitely not all there is to the track. Eilish's monster is far from vulnerable, and the fears it addresses are far more real. Using the background of sleep paralysis, we hear the titular reference to XXXTentacion's death, who the singer was friends with, as well as her fear to not be able to handle stardom. Ultimately, the frightening content is very much rooted in actual real life rather than horror flick tropes.

And that's why Billie Eilish is one of the most gifted and most deserving mainstream stars of her time, at least regarding her debut album. It's one thing to sound genuinely horrifying, but it's a whole lot more difficult sounding horrifying AND delivering thoughtful commentary AND composing tunes that people want to listen to over and over again. And that's why When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a remarkable album by a talented young artist, who will hopefully release even more strong material in the future.

Comments

It's solid for an album, good review.

Also, could you do a review of Igor by Tyler the Creator and Culture by Migos. (1st Culture not Culture II) - AlphaQ

Thank you!

I must say this is so far my favorite release of the year. She's the most interesting personality at the momenr, and she's very enigmatic. I think there are several layers in her music that I haven't yet discovered. "Bury a Friend" for example first hits you as a spooky horror song, but there is far more meaning to it.

Yes sure. "Culture" is no problem. I got that album right here on CD. (by the way I already reviewed "Culture II").
I still need to listen to "Igor" though. - Martin_Canine

Can you review Dean Lewis's A Place We Knew or Lewis Capaldi's Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent? - oneshot

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