Monday, April 1, 2019

album review: 'WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO' by billie eilish

This wasn't supposed to be a controversial review.

I mean, regardless of the album's quality where I step in and somehow piss off everyone - that's expected - but even going into the conversation, there's already a backlash in full-swing against Billie Eilish and I've yet to pin down any place where it makes sense or isn't industrial grade stupid. She's been accused of being an industry plant - mostly by people who don't know what 'artist development' is because their Soundcloud waifus aren't getting it - along with people who find her "edgy" presentation a theatrical act that isn't scary and I really don't have the patience to watch a bunch of disaffected edgelords stroke their e-peens. 

But I reckon it runs deeper than that, because if you just look at the music in context, it's hard to deny the quality. I'm not about to give Billie Eilish a pass because she's young, but there is a parallel to Lorde in presenting lyrics with interesting framing and haunted by wisdom and talent beyond her years. But where Lorde was dialing into raw intensity to amplify her pop, Billie Eilish was spiraling into a different direction, coaxed out by the darker sides of trap and Soundcloud rap and all the rest of the disposable music marketed at teenagers that seemed to have more going on. And Billie Eilish's desire to alienate and shock kind of amplifies preexisting antipathy from certain quarters that would have hated her regardless of quality: an act going dark and creepy with real subtlety and depth but without an obvious point of appeal in pop for guys in terms of sex appeal or immediate shock value, it's almost as if she's being positioned to appeal to an audience that's not them or something!

And make no mistake: it's working, and indeed, the slow growth and maturity of Billie Eilish's development by Darkroom and Interscope, guided by her cowriter Finneas deserves attention - its development that reflects a longer rollout and wells of potential and longevity many of her peers don't seem to have. And it's worth mentioning that Billie Eilish is still a relatively unique performer - she might have started in territory to close to Lana Del Rey and Lorde but the brand of creepypasta crossed with subtle slow-burns that's deliberately avoiding obvious sex appeal is rare in any genre, let alone pop and for a female performer. And once you start seeing things from that angle - and realize that the backlash towards anything teenage girls could like is tired and one of the most utterly petulant bitchfest gestures an opposing audience can bring - I was excited for this project; I've liked the majority of what Billie Eilish has released, and I wanted to see her stick the landing - so what did we get from WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

So okay, I'll admit I probably had high expectations for this project... so when I say that I think this album doesn't quite hit them, I place more of the blame for that on me, along with a few tones that just don't click with me as much as they would other audiences. Granted, that impression was already sliding into place given my lukewarm response to 'wish you were gay', but that song might be the most stark indicator of where I think this project goes off the rails, when instead of doubling down on a blend of styles filtered through her unique style, she draws them through a set of theatrical filters pulled from alternative pop acts that aren't always as interesting or compelling. So while I appreciate the experimentation, this album hits some of the uneven patches that you sort of expect on a debut - very good, but not quite great.

Now granted, I say all of this with the acknowledgement that in terms of raw talent as an expressive performer, Billie Eilish is a superstar. She's got the intensity and charisma to carry an entire project by herself without any problems, and the sheer range she's expected to embrace is genuinely impressive, from the husky torch songs that call back the most to her breakthrough EP to the jittery haunted moments that require her to embrace a dead-eyed image, to even moments where's taking the piss out of all of it - really, the best kind of trolling, where she could be mocking this whole mess... but appears just unstable enough where it could all be true, where the irony only reveals what she genuinely believes underneath. That's a really tough line to walk, especially when you realize that she's still a teenager and isn't about to sell herself as older - which is framing that might lead to some utterly jarring tonal shifts - and it does - but kind of makes sense given Billie Eilish's age and the market that'll embrace this project wholeheartedly. That being said, there's a level of manic poise and self-awareness that gives her more presence than arguably she should have, which helps her sound measured when she experiments... and where I've got my first issue, specifically surrounding the vocal production. Yes, on the ballads the multi-tracking sounds goddamn gorgeous and the integration of rougher edges absolutely works... but then you get points like her baby voice on '8' and I'm suddenly reminded of Melanie Martinez and get very uncomfortable.

And while we're here, we might as well talk about the instrumentation and production: all minimalist throbbing beats, warped melodies that crack and sputter at every moment, percussion that seems on the cusp of constantly falling apart, even some pulsating moments that feel reminiscent of the post-dubstep of early James Blake... but on the flipside you get delicate pianos or lonely acoustics in which the layering is damn near perfect to emphasize subtlety and intimacy - the fact that she was able to flip an interpolation of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' with as much stunning power as she did on 'i love you' was genuinely startling, but powerfully effective. Now we saw both sides of this in her single rollout with 'when the party's over' and 'bury a friend' and 'you should see me in a crown', and while you could draw comparisons in the ballads with Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish not only has a far more convincing command of her atmosphere, she doesn't embrace the cushion of retro-glamour that Lana indulges in, and her grasp of hip-hop is way more convincing. Just from a pure production standpoint, you definitely get the feeling this is a meticulous, in-house operation, but just loose and organic enough to defy any obvious notes from the label... for the most part. And this leads to arguably my two biggest issues with the album, the first being the points where a bigger, more garish theatrical sound is being pushed and not only does it not feel original, it just does not flatter her voice or style of writing. 'wish you were gay' was the first, obvious clue with its lumbering attempt at groove trying to assemble off the acoustic guitar, but what might bug me more are points where the songs are blatantly drawing influence from Melanie Martinez or even Emilie Autumn and it just doesn't match Billie Eilish's vibe. We'll get to more of this in the lyrics, but whoever thought that ukulele and squeaky, tinny synth was a good combination on '8' was wrong, same with that spongy synth and twinkling melody meshing effectively on 'ilomilo' - a damn shame, because I really dug the song otherwise. But then you get the more obvious experimentation that just doesn't stick as effectively - I dug a lot of the melody and chugging low-end on 'bad guy', but the overweight trap drop just killed the momentum. But on the flip side, when the experimentation works it's genuinely gripping: the glassy post-dubstep of 'you should see me in a crown' is genuinely unsettling, 'bury a friend' is as haunted and catchy as ever, 'xanny' might be one of the few examples of using vocals distorted by bass and binaural oscillation effectively, especially against the soft pianos, and even the damp low-end spikes of the groove on 'my strange addiction' is a surprisingly effective and dark flip around The Office samples that retains her bleak sense of humor.

And now it's time we talk about the content and lyrics, and where I've already seen some critics scoff at what might be perceived as adolescent sentiments or overreach - and on some level, I see the point of that. Billie Eilish's music at its best is subtle and so heavily reliant on atmosphere that if the lyrics begin treading into pure melodrama, it could make the tone all the more jarring. But this is where, again, I'm inclined to give her more of a pass - the whiplash shifts in tone, warped sense of earnestness, and overreaching adolescent melodrama and trolling does reflect something genuine within her audience, and where she rises above are the points where self-awareness and cleverness elevate the subject matter. Even if I'm still lukewarm on 'wish you were gay' at best, the fact that the song is more about savaging her own ego - and isn't trying to play cute like Katy Perry was with 'Ur So Gay' over a decade ago - gives her more of a pass than most, a pass she won't even give herself on '8'. And sure, with lines like 'my Lucifer is lonely' could be seen as tryhard, the flipped framing of heaven as more restrictive and intolerant while hell might be debauched but there's honest freedom, especially in the face of apocalyptic disaster across L.A. through the wildfires and global warming... well, maybe those divisions might be flimsier than some say. Then there's 'my strange addiction', the sort of song that seems to embody her unnatural passion - be it for her work or a person - but the specific reference to an episode of The Office where Michael shows off a film that's been a passion project for years that most people are too polite to say is crap, a deep-seated fear that many obsessive creatives have, and she makes use of the industrial strength awkwardness. And while she might have those moments asserting uncomfortable darkness - 'bad guy', 'you should see me in a crown' - even those songs are fragile and dotted with loneliness and depression, especially having seen so many of her friends succumb too easily to overdoses and death as she tries to grapple with the reality of her pain, with 'bury a friend' being the most stark example as she sees the same consumptive industry approaching her, but 'xanny' speaking to the numbness of overdose so many of her friends seem to be chasing, with the give-and-take hitting hardest on 'ilomilo'. In comparison, that's one reason why the ache of failed love and abusive relationships seems so much sharper, from 'when the party's over' where her insecurities are plainly on display to the suicidal spiral of 'listen before i go' to the desperate, fractured moment she tries to cling to on 'i love you'. Now all of this being said, while all of the raging and conflicted emotions might make sense and feel mostly consistent - especially in how she never gives herself a pass, for better or worse - it can't help but feel scattered and not really building up to more - Billie Eilish has said the album is inspired by her night terrors, and while that might provide an emotive throughline, it does mean the overall picture is a little blurry.

But still, if I'm talking about a mainstream pop project that showcases the sort of raw potential that makes Billie Eilish such a potent and disruptive presence, I'd definitely argue this album gets there. Again, not perfect: there are enough experimental misfires that keep this just shy of greatness... but at the same time, most pop stars aren't allowed to experiment in the same way as Eilish is, and that shows Darkroom and Interscope has given her the space, control, and artistic development to craft her own unique, nightmarish world, and from what I can tell, it worked. As such, I'm giving this a very strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, but early streaming numbers have already told me you're hearing this already. Have to hope this gives her even more momentum going forward and I love seeing this sort of disruption. At this point, I'm just curious to see what nightmares are tapped next.

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