Review Summary: A volatile launching pad.When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
is splattered with the kind of imagery you might expect from an artist like Marilyn Manson. The cover art references Eilish’s frequent night terrors and lucid dreams, while her music videos feature things like back-stabbing needles, grimy black tears, and blood-smeared faces. The lead single, titled “Bury a Friend”, casually alludes to Billie selling her soul while making references to her own death. This isn’t Manson though, and this isn’t the kind of hard line rock that one typically associates with such dark symbolism. It’s a seventeen year old overnight pop sensation, bucking the trend of glimmery poptimism in favor of trap beats, edgy humor, and unnerving whispers. Eilish takes aim at an entire genre and extends a middle finger, and that’s precisely what’s been missing from it.
Anyone who has been around for more than a decade knows that musical trends are constantly in flux; the whole goth movement both commenced and began to wane in the 1980s, as subgenres like shock rock, goth metal, and horror punk continued in the 90s as more of an underground movement. Aside from a handful of high profile artists, these styles never really had much mainstream appeal – mainly because the very notion is counterproductive to what the genre represents. Now, in an era of pop where artists such as Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen are considered icons, it’s arguable that there’s never been a bigger vacuum in the space of dark
mainstream music. Whereas these women smile at the camera, Eilish rolls her eyes. It’s a gratifying fix of antisocial and sarcastic behavior; anti-pop
in a cultural sense, while very much adopting its traits in a more literal, or musical, sense. It’s as if she was planted in the genre by a group of rogue goth-rockers with the intention of bringing down the empire from within.
Therein lies Eilish’s primary appeal. She’s everything that the Swifts and Sheerans of the world aren’t
, and she’s brash about it. Don’t think for a second that When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
would have garnered nearly as much pre-release attention if she was another beautiful blonde songstress with an acoustic guitar. It’s her persona – not necessarily her music alone – that has launched her into viral levels of adolescent fame, and it’s the same formula that will likely catalyze a dark pop movement from other black sheep aspiring for stardom.
When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
does everything it can to push this shady, unwholesome image to the limit. ‘bad guy’ feels like a vibrant dance number, but undermines its pop sensibility with lyrics like “Own me, I'll let you play the role / I'll be your animal” – before breaking down into a trap beat where she sings “I'm that make your mama sad type...might seduce your dad type.” Listeners will find that the lyrics across the entire album try a little too hard to be edgy, aspiring for shock value at the expense of the song’s flow. At times they can become downright cringe worthy, like the regrettable “Don't give me a Xanny, now or ever”, but her quirkiness also occasionally pays off – like when she references The Scarn
(a satirical dance number from the sitcom The Office
) on ‘my strange addiction’ – an exhale from the at-times overbearingly gloomy façade. The album features a mix of unconventional ideas – some are clever, and others make you want to put your head in your hands. This is something that we maybe should have anticipated from a seventeen year old who rose to prominence in a matter of a couple years, but the upside is that good or bad
, she’s tried more new things on this album than some of the biggest pop stars have in their entire careers.
The record’s highlights seem to come not when Eilish crafts a huge chorus or a memorable lyric, but rather when the beat dictates the flow of the song. It’s debatable as to whether that’s a good sign for Billie long-term or not, but it’s certainly in line with the idea that she isn’t cut from the same cloth as these other prize-winning pop artists. ‘bury a friend’, ‘you should see me in a crown’, and ‘ilomilo’ all have forceful and/or complex beats, and almost like a hip-hop artist, Billie seems to thrive when she can get into a rhythm. She has more conviction in a single verse from ‘bury a friend’ (“It's probably somethin' that shouldn't be said out loud / Honestly, I thought that I would be dead by now”) than she does in the entirety of ‘xanny’, or a more cutesy number like ‘8.’ The frenetic synths that buzz throughout ‘you should see me in a crown’ act as a percussive presence, and again Eilish relishes the moment, sounding more confident than ever in her delivery of a memorable line like, “You should see me in a crown / I'm gonna run this nothing town.” It’s clear that Billie flourishes in atmospheres that play to her strength – which is more dictating than actual singing – so things like murky, reverb-drenched percussion and offbeat rhythms provide her with the most freedom to drive home that addicting quirkiness with poise.
She also achieves a surprising amount of success in her bare-bones tracks – we’re talking the hymnal-like ‘when the party’s over’, where she puts her mesmerizing whispers and hums to excellent use – as well as the acoustic finger-picked vulnerability of ‘i love you.’ Eilish uses space, pause, and silence to her advantage ridiculously well in the former, each verse feeling like a levee breaking as emotion and melody pour in from the walls Billie pits up against them. This is sort of the flip side to her dominant persona – these still frame moments when she allows herself to be heard not as the cynical teenage pop star, but rather as Billie the seventeen year old girl who’s going through all the same things you are. On ‘I love you’ she recalls “The smile that you gave me even when you felt like dying”, and laments on the connected outro ‘goodbye’: “Don't you know I'm no good for you？” There’s enough in Eilish’s short game – these simple, stunning ballads – to complement her long drive; those blistering beats with goth-inspired imagery.
The problem with Eilish’s debut is that she doesn’t play to all of those strengths nearly enough. When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
is, quite frankly, all over the place. Too often does she settle for that “night terror” vibe without any actual lyrical backbone to support the acerbic tone. Other times, she confoundingly does the exact opposite, locating a dark mind space and then surrounding it with less-than-threatening music from the mill of average pop. It’s a bit maddening at times, seeing Eilish on the cusp of fulfilling her vision – even with all the tools at her disposal – only to write something as punchless as ‘all the good girls go to hell’, or as thematically deconstructive as the sprightly, bouncy ‘8.’ Hopefully as Eilish hones her craft she’ll be able to weed out the songs that don’t logically fit, and on an album coming in at an already bloated fourteen tracks, it makes you wonder how Billie and her production team didn’t find a way to better curate the tracklist. These issues are forgivable on a debut, maybe
, but it’s not something Eilish can continue to do if she ever wants to write a cohesive concept album – which When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
was supposed to be...and is not.
This album is something of an anomaly. It’s difficult to recall the last time an artist exploded into the mainstream spotlight so
quickly, yet whose reception was also starkly divided. There’s undoubtedly parents out there who won’t want their daughters listening to Eilish, which invariably means she’s doing something right. She’s defying the pop status quo, challenging the idea that fame and fortune is rooted in mild manners and always smiling for the tabloids. Time will tell if Billie is just another moody teenager – whose fickle whims will carry her in a totally different direction years from now – or if she’s on to something much bigger. When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
is a volatile launching pad. This is anything but a safe debut, which could make Eilish a star In her own right – in the realm of dark pop – or alternatively could see her collapse under the weight of her enormous aspirations. It’ll be a wild ride either way, with plenty of dissention along the way. Are you ready？