Youth is at war with everything, including itself. When we young, we are desperate to be experts in people, and how their actions impose or reward us, and the extent to which we’re curtailed by sadness, locked down, tired of fitting in. There are two halves to self-definition – being yourself free of influence, or taking other personalities for people who ask you to do so. Billie Eilish is caught between these warring states of mind. That’s the piercing surprise in this record: she convinces us of a devil, and an angel, and whispered tear-stained confessions near an open window at the rear of a room that’s just wide enough to jump through if you thought it’d prove a point to anyone.
Billie’s sad. You’ve got to be on board with that. Otherwise, you’ll be bringing up Lana Del Ray, and blue mood architects with trembling voices made for darkness and a silent crowd in a TV studio. But Eilish, already, has way too much personality to amputate as her fame continues to burn. She’s a nascent fashion icon, a head-spinner at Coachella, yet she still feels like one of her fans – just a moodier girl with manic energy and Lil Xan in her contacts.
And she’s representing youth like few people are in music, mainly because – much better than the sad rappers her age – there’s true crossover appeal in not only the things she writes about, but in how she arranges and exhibits her work. On WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, she exhibits a subtle grasp of love and friendship, forces it to a messy escape from reality, and sees which sides of her win out. The good? The bad? None of it ugly. The production here is glorious. You can tease a lot from these songs.
It is partly down to her brother Finneas O’Connell on ad hoc studio duty, and also Billie’s evident wish to have a fun time with her demons, as broad as they are. I was ready to dislike another Spotify hoodie star, someone who can be thrown into a Chill or Bangerz playlist with an autumnal mind to go with her merch, but WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP’s dynamic ace in the hole is the melding of production and personality. In fact, I think the Eilish siblings have something extremely special. ‘you should see me in a crown’ could be prophetic. “Count my cards, watch them fall,” she sings. “Blood on a marble wall.” Marble is the classical surface of stability, and most of us don’t crave the distant edifice of pop stardom anymore. We’ve seen it ride to ruin. We’ve seen the blood and we want to acknowledge it. So when you get bass fuzz crawling up through Billie’s haunted, inches-from-the-mic delivery, you believe violence does exist around her better corners; that her sound lives up to the message.
‘you should see me…’ is dark, lilting and declarative, letting her vocals bubble away for a moment before a trap chorus slams her enemies down, one by one. Then it ends abruptly, like a lot of what follows and precedes it, which means the sadness and the sex don’t get old fast. 14 tracks, none of which overstay their welcome. It often feels as if she’s impatient to get to another idea – quite weird given she mostly writes muted material super slowly, but that’s her groove, and it doesn’t show.
We have a love letter to sobriety in ‘xany’, the barest whisker of wire brush drum sticks and a piano that completes the hook for her until Billie returns, unaccompanied, for the last verse. She’s begging for a connection free of bullshit – an aim that is corrupted by normalisation as we age, as we get more invested in stuff, history and the standards we live up to. For now, she only wants to watch from the sidelines and win her quiet battles. Along with ‘i love you’, it’s an example of parity that draws us right to her face, inches away, breathing her in. Cannily, Eilish layers her voice on top of itself and her brother’s as she climbs to higher ranges. Instead of screaming from the chest, she lets her sensitivity glide and fall and repeatedly thicken.
I’d love to deny it because the heraldry for the track is so fierce, especially in Billie’s interviews, but ‘when the party’s over’ is the album’s masterwork, the crown for each jewel, and why is that? The sensuality, maybe. The “like it like that” refrain and its intimate scrambling for truth in a choked throat. How the “call me back” line could mean she is asking her lover to check his phone, is avoiding the robotic intensity of his desire, or wants to be brought back from the brink of annihilation in whatever they’re doing together, how they act around friends.
Perspective switches on ‘8’ when we hear a babyish, corporeal Eilish pitch-shifted, sounding like a kid in a Halloween ghost costume. It fits. She’s singing about herself from the viewpoint of the scorned and she’s dissolving. With uke, guitar and clap backing, it’s a delightful near-lullaby, even airier when you consider it alongside ‘my strange addiction’, which is like The XX heading out past bedtime. There’s a wonderful passage where Eilish admits she’s crass, wired and biting glass, yet doesn’t want to open up about any motto she may have. A TV is on, and a TV couple ask “Did you like that?” to each other. “Which part?” Then we hear “Billie!” immediately on the tenth track, ‘bury a friend’, and know she considers herself to be whole for once.
It’s tempting to remember Billie is just 17. The lyrics avoid specificity and are a teenager’s pain, broad-hearted, nebulous. Ash trays and “nine times you never made it there” are all the details we get. ‘wish you were gay’ is the apotheosis, where the “just kinda wish” is pleading yet striving to articulate ignorance, the romantic kind, or any immunity to her power.
And where she’ll go from here is anyone’s guess. There’s every reason to believe she’ll stick with Finneas. She’ll take her time. I hope so, at least. With so much so young, Billie Eilish could warble in heavier, more illustrious ways. Even now though, this is refreshing music, a black liquorice slap of goth pop that is much tenderer than you’d expect.