Some artists defy descriptions. Or, at least, their inspirations, methods and expressions are often so astounding, it’s futile to try and label what they actually sound like. This line of thought, among many, is something that is becoming routine when the name Billie Eilish is mentioned. There’s plenty of talk about her “vibe” and “aura”, but little in the way of nailing down what the hell a Billie Eilish’s song is all about.
There are plenty of reasons for that. One being that the 17-year-old’s releases have been intermittent – an EP and a smattering of singles – and the other, more importantly, is that once you try to describe why something is so good, it immediately becomes an impossible task that does justice to nobody. If the previous three years had meant that people knew the name, and not the sound, then the US teen’s debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ will go someway to defining it.
This album is, thankfully, a remarkable effort from an artist whose sound has become in danger of being camouflaged by hype. Her debut EP, 2017’s ‘Don’t Smile At Me’ remains a strong effort, built around her viral and breakout single of the previous year, ‘Ocean Eyes’; that record contains moments of real charm, like the bubblegum-pop ‘Bellyache’ or the brooding, bolshy ‘COPYCAT’ – though a cohesive and extensive collection it is not.
Scarcity has had little impact on her success. Since ‘Don’t Smile At Me’ was released, it has been lingering in the charts both sides of the Atlantic for the best part of a year, and she’s become both an Instagram icon (15.1 million followers at the the time of writing) as well a key spokesperson amongst her generation. Now, in March 2019, she’s undoubtedly the most-talked about teen on the planet – everyone’s got a take on, be it about her styling or attitude.
Rest-assured: ‘When We All Fall Asleep…’ is worth the wait and exceeds the hype, but the sense of occasion hasn’t quite filtered down to Billie. On the 12-second opening track ‘!!!!!!!’ she jokes about taking out her retainer, and announces that “this is the album”, before she and Finneas O’Connell – co-writer, producer and older brother – descend into laughter.
The sense of their bedroom studio is all over this album. When there’s a hint of bombast, it’s soon disregarded in favour of the playful and DIY atmosphere that’s been cultivated in her and Finneas’ lab. Second half highlight ‘My Strange Addiction’, the closest thing Billie has ever come to writing a pop song that could have been sung by someone else, is interspersed with audio from a cult episode of The Office (the American version is one of her favourite shows). Likewise, on the thrilling, thumping opening track ‘Bad Guy’, where Billie’s vocals playfully joust with the looped bassline for her heaviest and club-ready track yet, there’s a moment after the chorus where the hubbub halts and an assured “duh!” from Billie hits you around the chops. And hen the bass kicks in again. Of course it was going to be this good. Of course they’re going to have a ball making it.
As the 14 tracks whittle along, that elusive and definable ‘sound’ starts to show itself. It’s remarkably agile; ‘Xanny’, a three-part soundclash, is perhaps the best example of the sonic palette that’s dipped into. The layered falsetto vocal trickery opens the song, while a wicked bassy onslaught warps the vocals into a slithering beast. By the end, the two coalesce into a surprisingly schmaltzy finale. The same formula is revisited and recalibrated on the previously released ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’ and ‘Ilomilo’, and the G-Funk nodding ‘All Good Girls Go To Hell’.
One aspect that needed no further development: her astute lyrical skills. Each track is laden with Blilie-isms that’ll make for plenty of Instagram-caption barbs – from the profound to the playful. On ‘Xanny’, she laments the prescription medication’s impact and the ensuing crisis on youth culture: “In the second-hand smoke, still just drinking canned coke, I don’t need a Xanny to feel better”. The chorus to ‘All The Good Girls Go To Hell’, meanwhile, proves itself a sparkling gem with jaunty piano and stuttering beats: “All the good girls go to hell / Because even God herself has enemies”.
There’s little to plausibly fault on the record. Previous singles are included sparingly (2018’s ‘When The Party’s Over’ and ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’), and there’s a real level of intrigue waiting on every song, partly as only two new songs (‘Bury A Friend’, ‘Wish You Were Gay’) got a pre-release. It’s an album that moves with purpose and knows when to hold the listener tight, or grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them into her world. That said, one nitpick is the pacing towards the end, with the final three songs – ‘Listen Before I Go’, ‘I Love You’ and ‘Goodbye’ – providing an melancholy end close to an otherwise thrilling album.
‘When We All Fall Asleep…’, then, ticks all the boxes for a memorable and game-changing debut album. It’s enjoyable and familiar, but retains Billie’s disruptive streak. It’s a brave and resounding first step for an artist with bags of potential and over the next decade, you’ll no doubt see popular music scrabbling to try and replicate what this album does on every level. There’ll always be copycats, as Billie noted on her 2017 song of the same name, but none will be able to reach these heights any time soon.