Already breaking records for more “pre-adds” than any other album before on Apple Music and making her the youngest female solo artist in history to top the UK Album Charts, Billie Eilish’s debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? arrives with the heavy weight of being expected to transform the seventeen-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter from the goth teen idol into a pop star fit for the world stage.
The buzz that has sprung up around the release suggests that she will likely succeed, but as an introduction to a wider audience, WWAFAWDWG is a surprisingly impersonal and inconsistent affair. Musically, especially in comparison to the more upbeat electropop of “Don’t Smile at Me”, there is a certain temptation to brand it as the 2017 EP’s mature counterpart, if maturity is to be conveyed through anti-drug messages (“xanny”) and sombre ballads. The pre-release single “when the party’s over” neatly encapsulates Eilish’s approach to those: take a piano melody so bare that it barely qualifies as one, add platitudes about a doomed romance (“Don’t you know I’m no good for you?/ I’ll only hurt you if you let me”), and let producer brother FINNEAS (who actually gets the sole songwriting credit for that particular song) spice things up with intermittent glitches and vocoder effects. The same formula applies to the trio of tracks that forms the conclusion of the album. I don’t know how many times one needs to listen to them to be able to distinguish them from one another, but from personal experience I can confirm that nine is not enough.
Not the whole album is so very somnolent though, exemplified by the much poppier lead-up singles which range from the enjoyably ludicrous horror show extravaganza of “bury a friend” over the charmingly taunting “bad guy” to the utterly misguided dubstep breakdown of “you should see me in a crown”. Yet WWAFAWDWG clearly isn’t pure radio-ready pop either, as Eilish’s recurrent use of suicide as a motif in songs like the aforementioned “bury a friend” or “listen before I go” stands out by (especially in view of her largely underage and impressionable audience) bordering on fetishising the topic, much like in the work of her late friend XXXTentacion.
Like X, what defines Billie Eilish has next to nothing to to with the nature of her music itself, but with a neo-goth style carefully cultivated on social media to appeal to the perennially depressed Generation Z. Her musical identity in turn is moulded from influences worn so freely on her sleeve that they overshadow any ounce of originality: “bury a friend” is basically “Black Skinhead”-lite, “when the party’s over” comes a few years too late for the “22, a million”-era Bon Iver party, and “8” sounds like Jason Mraz played over trap drums with chipmunk vocals; which is novel at least, I guess. On top of that, the album is filled with vocal samples that make little sense to anyone who isn’t intimately acquainted with Eilish’s personal life – apparently she wears clear-aligner braces, so that’s what the intro is about. And I love The Office as much as anybody, but its constant interpolation in “My Strange Addiction” completely messes up the already unstable flow of that song.
For an artist who has said that “lyrics are so important, and people don’t realise that”, the lyrics on WWAFAWDWG are also nothing to write home about. “all the good girls go to hell” is less blasphemous than the harmless toying with religious concepts of a former Bible student who’s just learnt she can get away with joking about God without being spanked. “wish you were gay” commits to a groan-worthy counting theme (“I ate/eight alone at seven, you were six minutes away”) that is so annoyingly commonplace in pop and hip hop that there should really be a name for it by now. Miraculously, that still isn’t the most offensive part of the song, which is a bit like a flipside to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”: less catchy, but in equally bad taste. It’s not exactly homophobic, but if you’re asking yourself why you feel so icky listening to it, just imagine the lyrics coming from a man addressing a woman.
No, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? doesn’t justify the hype. There might be something to be said about Eilish invigorating the antiseptic landscape of Swedish-produced, focus group-tested pop music, but there’s nothing in her style that hasn’t been done before by the pop punk and emo bands of the early 2000s and nothing in her mix of alternative R&B and downtempo electropop that Lorde couldn’t do better. Her entire aesthetic can basically be boiled down to the music video to blink-182’s “I Miss You”, which, incidentally, you could watch exactly eleven times instead of listening to WWAFAWDWG once. Just putting that out there.