Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Review: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? • Billie Eilish

If the most recent version of A Star is Born had been amended to reflect a realistic version of today’s music industry, Billie Eilish’s career would have been the template.

The 17-year-old was born to an actress mother and grew up in Los Angeles, making music with her older brother in his bedroom and posting a few takes to SoundCloud. Half a year later, her online buzz – and surely her family's loose proximity to the industry – granted her a record contract with Interscope Records before she was old enough to drive a car. Two years later, she was named Apple’s Up Next artist and granted top billing on the soundtrack to the Netflix phenomena 13 Reasons Why, alongside series producer Selena Gomez. Today, she boasts nearly 14 million followers on Instagram, over 32 million monthly listeners on Spotify... and finally, a debut full-length record.

Having accomplished so little before hitting adulthood, Eilish has seen her age memorialized as a primary element of her business plan in most media profiles. She’s a young artist who makes music for young people: Nothing on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is nuanced or subtle, and nearly everything is bold and charged with heavy emotion. She seems content with – if not tickled by – feigned derangement in her imagery: Tens of syringes in her back, giant spiders in her mouth, streams of black tears down her face. And her music matches her intensity: Hi-hats skitter over the ominous pits of "You Should See Me in a Crown," and the eerie vocals and speaker-bursting bass blasts fulfill the unhinged urgency of "Bury a Friend."

Darkness and angst don't feel misplaced in a young woman coming to fame at an awkward age. She's old enough to boast the devilish "All The Good Girls Go To Hell," but young enough to maintain residence in her childhood bedroom and refer to her mother as "mommy." (Her mother is around to clean up after her brasher statements in interviews – usually to maintain the integrity of the stable upbringing provided to Eilish and her brother, Finneas O'Connell – and embarrass her daughter with old-fashioned colloquialisms.) Since her short life hasn't provided enough material to match an overzealous creative drive, Eilish fixates on life's darkest realities. She goes as far as to channel her depression into "Listen Before I Go," a chill-evoking ballad penned like a suicide note.

In all fairness, Eilish's version of deranged youth seems somewhat self-aware. "Bad Guy," the upbeat opener with a charmingly chintzy chorus break, balances her goofy reality and her bad gal aspirations. "I'm that bad type, make your mama sad type, make your girlfriend mad type, might seduce your dad type," she sings over a racing heartbeat, though a typical teenager appears from behind the mask: "Bad Guy" is prefaced with slurps, snaps, and a giggled announcement that she had just popped out her plastic Invisalign trays. "My Strange Addiction," the album’s other resident club track, is stapled together with awkward spoken word samples from The Office, a cult classic among most average young adults for its ability to act as a personality trait substitute on social media.

Her world is always bleak, but her coping mechanisms swing from gum-popping sarcasm to delicate rawness. Debut single "Ocean Eyes" from her Don't Smile At Me extended play, the Khalid duet "Lovely" for 13 Reasons Why, and "When the Party’s Over," a dreamy career highlight at this record’s centerfold, have revealed Eilish’s gentle side. Independent of her past work, the record proves her voice hypnotizes in most environments, whether buried beneath the domineering bass of "Xanny" or pushed to the forefront of a cut like "I Love You." A heartbreaking five minutes of acoustic despair with a mesmerizing melody, it is one of three ballads tied together at the record's finale. They allow the curtain to close as Eilish's emotions finally consume her; Rather than alienate herself as the anti-hero, she falls to her knees and pulls people inwards. Being the bad guy takes a toll, after all.

Given the record's high production value, it's nearly unfathomable to believe When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was written and recorded by a teenager and her brother in their childhood home. Sure, it suffers a few misfires – "8" is a sappy, pitch-shifted return to the ukulele, and folks sure have dug their heels at the relatively flat "Wish You Were Gay" thanks to trigger impulses – but the record largely justifies her bloated fame with solid, tailor-made songwriting that can appeal to the cool kids, the outcasts, and the adults alike. Its melodies are simple and crisp; its production choices are bold, albeit trendy and youthful; and its first-week sales numbers are about to rival those of megastar Ariana Grande's latest effort. Not bad for a career built in a bedroom, eh?

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is available now under Interscope Records.

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