One of the most fun things about debut albums is listening back to them years later with the knowledge of what the artist would go on to do later on. With today’s album, we can’t do that. Released in 2019, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is the debut album of up and coming pop artist Billie Eilish and is, as of the date that I am writing this blog, her only album. I figured that, ahead of the release of Billie’s anticipated sophomore album, slated for this July, it would be fun to take a moment to revisit, or give a first listen to the album that, in tandem with lead single “Bad Guy” earned Billie 6 Grammys. Before we get into it though, I’ll address right away the polarizing figure that is Billie Eilish by giving you my official stance: I do not care. Whether it be clever marketing or the media smelling blood in the water, Billie has been a topic of discussion as a character with little care given to the actual music. On this blog I have virtually no interest in commenting on the character of Billie Eilish, what she represents, her image, or anything like that. I am, however, interested in Billie as an artist, particularly as a musician. With that out of the way, let’s talk music.
Billie Eilish is among a growing class of artist: the melancholic pop singer. I try to come into all albums as a blank slate, ready to take in an album for what it is, not for what I’m told it should be, but it was hard for me to shake the expectation that I would be going into just another sad pop record. I am pleased to report that my initial listen of When We All Fall Asleep… left me pleasantly surprised, and subsequent listens only impressed me more. Taken at face value, When We All Fall Asleep… is just another sad pop album by a talented teenage girl, but this album’s greatest strengths lie in its subtleties. There’s no doubting that, as a singer, Billie Eilish is extremely talented, but where other artists would set out to prove their vocal talents and swing for the fences on a debut album, Billie exhibits restraint. Much like Patti Smith on Horses, Billie controls the emotional inflection and tones of her voice to serve the themes and lyrics of each song. At times she is sharp and fierce, later she becomes totally disarmed and vulnerable, and along the way she conveys a variety of other attitudes in-between. Billie’s voice does not contain the power of Aretha or Whitney, but her control and ability to pick her moments allows her to get so much more out of her talent than she has any business doing, and each song is stronger for it.
Backing the vocals and lyrics is the wonderfully produced instrumental tracks of none other than Billie’s older brother Finneas. Much like the vocal performances, Finneas’s instrumentals shine because of their inventiveness and subtleties. They don’t quite hide behind the vocals but they also don’t distract them. Every piece of each song is carefully chosen and place to work together in order to generate the greatest result, and they come damn close. From electronic based upbeat tracks like “Bad Guy” and “My Strange Addiction” to slower, more acoustic tracks like “8” or the final few tracks, every piece is calculated and mixed remarkably well. Finneas gets the most mileage out the low-end, though, making use of bass in ways that are both creative and restrained. In a world where bass gets turned way up and dominates most dance tracks and hip-hop music, it’s refreshing to get into songs like “bury a friend” where the bass fades up, swelling with the vocals only to cut out in order to place emphasis on a phrase. None of the beats are going to stick out and live in your head, but during each song the instrumentals are going to feel just right, and I only appreciate them more the more I listen.
I think what really does it for me on this album, though, is that Billie seems to posses something that so few 17 year olds do: self-awareness. I don’t want to call it emotional maturity, because she openly acknowledges some amount of immaturity, and even a touch of pretentiousness, but it’s the knowingness that makes it work all the same. One of my favorite moments on this album comes in what might be my favorite song on the track list: “wish you were gay.” On this relatable and humorous song about unrequited young love Billie sings “I’m so selfish// But you make me feel helpless” while coming from a knowing whisper up to a cathartic swell of emotion. What separates Billie, lyrically, from many of her peers is that she acknowledges the truth of her own emotions and, furthermore, chooses to make them a vital part of her music. This not only adds some level of intrigue into the lyrics, but also makes the emotional rollercoaster of the album feel all the more believable despite not exactly exploring any uncharted territory.
Emotionally, When We All Fall Asleep… may not be breaking new ground, but that doesn’t mean that many of the tracks don’t feel fresh and interesting. Right out the gates we get an intro that just consists of Billie and Finneas joking around and laughing while working on the album together. This creates a sense that we are entering something created by people who have a strong bond and who are all about having fun, and right away I’m in to join them on this musical ride. “bad guy” cleverly comments on the masks that we hide behind around people that we aren’t super close with while also presenting Billie behind a mask of her own. She starts out pointed and confident before moving into “xanny” a song about, get this, not doing drugs. “you should see me in a crown” returns to form seeing Billie as strong and confident, almost aggressively which carries over into “all the good girls go to hell” before turning toward Billie’s emotional turmoil. I will say that the album kind of loses my focus for the final 3 tracks, but the rewind back through a snippet of every track at the very end of “goodbye” manages to stick the landing nicely.
Billie Eilish is a polarizing figure, to say the least. Some write her off as coming from an entertainment family and having her success bought rather than earned. Some think she’s an utter genius and, at the ripe age of 17, claimed her as the “voice of a generation” as if she’s the next Dylan, Lennon, or Cobain. So far, it’s too early to make the call on if either of these stances are right at all, but I’ll be darned if she isn’t one talented artist. Personally, I hope nothing but the best for this young artist and, if she keeps making albums this good, I’ll be here listening along.
Thanks for reading, you little rascal. See ya tomorrow for the epic conclusion to More Great Debuts.
You should see ME in a crown!