Genre: Alternative Pop, Electropop
Favorite Tracks: “bad guy,” “you should see me in a crown,” “when the party’s over,” “ilomilo,” “i love you”
Remember in 2015 when one of the biggest pop hits of the year filled its pre-chorus with the sound of women screaming? The Weeknd’s “The Hills” was proof that pop audiences wanted something more than bright, flashy pop: they wanted something dark, menacing, edgy. It’s hard to pinpoint where this trend began; there’s Kanye’s embrace of harsher, more industrial tones, the Weeknd’s own tortured, atmospheric R&B, the rise of trap and SoundCloud rap as a style in hip hop and pop. The climax of these developments was XXXTentacion, who blended genres as unpop as screamo with a DIY aesthetic and highlighted occasionally nightmarish subject material and emo-angst which clashed hard with his flexing. With his death, as well as the music industry milking his corpse to the bone, it was only a matter of time until someone repackaged his pain and edginess with a greater level of polish, pop sensibility, and actual competency.
Enter Billie Eilish, who has ascended to an absurd level of fame and oversaturation that rivals Cardi B’s 2018. She’s breaking records for Apple pre-saves, weathered accusations of being an industry plant due to her brother/producer Finneas O’Connell being a moderately successful TV actor, and reopened the same Pandora’s box that Little Big Town did with “Girl Crush.” With all this hype and hoo-hah, as well as a goofy title similar to X’s “Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares,” it’s easy to forget there is quality. DON’T SMILE AT ME, her debut EP, proved she had a good grasp of atmosphere and interesting vocal arrangements, and her debut WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO brings the tunes and performances needed to make its raggedy, industrial vibes work and not feel too cringey.
Music critics have placed Eilish within the camp of Lorde protegees, such as Halsey, Daya, and Alessia Cara, and it’s interesting to see her handle similar topics and yet do so many more interesting things with them. “you should see me in a crown” is the confident ode to Eilish’s ability to destroy your expectation that Daya’s “Sit Still Look Pretty” wishes it was, and “xanny” is a more compelling take on being annoyed with parties than Alessia Cara’s “Here” because it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Eilish does not claim to be above parties, but instead focuses on how rabid drug abuse and addiction to Xanax is hurting the scene and ruining people’s lives when they are supposed to be having fun.
A large part of why this works is Eilish’s natural, quiet intensity, which works to her advantage when she’s called to sell either hip hop swagger or sadness. She’s just as comfortable playing the dominant in a messy relationship on “bad guy” as she is lamenting separation anxiety on “ilomilo.” Of course, she’s helped out by fantastic vocal production; the multitracking is consistently excellent in squeezing out the confidence or fear from what could easily be read as disaffection, but then there’s the rising tide of background vocals on the sizzling “when the party’s over” or the stunning harmonies from O’Connell on “i love you.” I’m most thankful for “bury a friend” and it’s heavy use of pitch-shifting, because it realizes that you pitch-shift down when you’re trying to sound creepy, and it helps sell the concept of her anxieties and fears being personified into a real person (in this case the monster under her bed) better than the technique did on Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.”
Given the goofy album title and songs about suicide, monsters under the bed, and all good girls going to hell, you probably would not expect nuance, subtlety, and especially self-awareness here. “wish you were gay” generated a lot of controversy for baiting people with what appears to be a longing lesbian love song. But instead the song is about her hoping an ex is gay in order to shield her own fragile ego, and Eilish admits she is being selfish and adolescent by doing so. It’s a real moment of earnestness and emotional complexity that is more the norm than expected here. I’ve already talked about “xanny” properly framing complaints about drug abuse so as not to come off like a petulant PSA, but “listen before I go” takes a melodramatic metaphor and sells it with some effectively ambiguous lines like “Tell me love is endless, don’t be so pretentious.” “I love you” and “ilomilo” similarly capture the fear of losing someone she loves, and she defends herself by not getting too close or accepting lies from her partner or herself.
While picking out a genre for WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP is not easy, it is ultimately a pop record, and the beats and hooks should have catchiness and momentum to them. Fortunately, O’Connell and Eilish know how to write a vocal melody with swing and build to it, even on quieter tunes like “when the party’s over,” and the drops pay it all off without overselling it or forgetting the moodiness. The whistling keyboard of the post-chorus on “bad guy” or the squealing, wirey synth over the industrial huffing on “all the good girls go to hell” are definite highlights, but “you should see me in a crown” runs away as the best beat by anchoring itself in a frenetic whirring that builds to an monstrous sub-bass. It captures the feeling of quietly biding her time before unleashing and proving all her doubters wrong “one by one.” Though it obviously has much more of a budget than X and other Soundcloud creators, it is refreshing to hear someone take their nightmarish queasiness and actually make the guitars, vocal layers, and melodies stand out and not dissolve into soup.
With all that praise in mind, the sequencing of the album is odd. Ending with three slower ballads that each give listeners the false impression they are the coda, as gripping and well-performed as they are, means the final stretch of the album can get a little monotonous. The order of the songs makes sense narratively, but it also front-loads its poppier, more up-tempo jams and leaves all the ballads for the end. A few beats are a tad generic as well; I’ll defend the lyrical content of “wish you were gay,” but not the blocky percussion and stagnant piano melody, and the spikey synth tone that opens “my strange addiction” is rather stale and not that far above a DJ Mustard beat from five years ago.
It’s easy to come away from WHEN WE FALL SLEEPS thinking it’s a gigantic troll or trying too hard to be random and cool—it starts with her and her brother talking about Invisalign and features a song full of sound clips from THE OFFICE—or being uncomfortable with the fact that the entire album might a tribute to X rather than just a successor to him. Most of you will probably digest it in passing given how much this thing is getting pushed by the record industry, or you’ll be swept up the hostile discourse around her being just another sad-girl or industry plant and forget about the music itself. However, as long as the music industry determines what you listen to and pop music remains dour and solemn, I hope it’s dominated by artists who have as much personality, coherence, and killer production as Billie.