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‘WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’ is the Album You Didn’t Want to Love

4.5 Stars

when we all fall asleep
Album cover for "WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?" by Billie Eilish.

It can be difficult to be an adult and a Billie Eilish fan at the same time. Born into the entertainment industry in L.A. and propelled to fame at age 14 by the song “ocean eyes,” Eilish is easy to dismiss as just another production-line pop artist, masterminded by a shadowy and patriarchal chart-hit machine — it’s difficult to admit that the same person whose Instagram handle is @wherearetheavocados can also be the future of pop music.

This doesn’t even get to the core of why Eilish is so hard to accept. We live in a generation where Pepsi and Gillette are self-described propagators of social change and audiences increasingly question the rights of big corporations to invade social movements. Artistically, Billie Eilish takes the next step in this invasion. She leads the once aspirational icon of the popstar into the dark, where sponsored product placements are masked in shadow. When listening to “WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”, there is a moment of delicious horror when we realize that Eilish is a consumerist Chatterton: openly a teenager, but draped in Louis Vuitton, clutching Beats headphones, and brushing against our skin while crooning about death.

All this makes it hard not to recoil. Yet Eilish is disquietingly convincing in her endless cycle of inner turmoil and death drive. The track “xanny” in particular elegantly pairs Eilish’s soft rasp with helicopter panning and bass distortion to thrilling effect. In “bury a friend,” interplay between Eilish’s vocals and a Depeche Mode-esque synth tritone known as the devil’s interval adds morbid credence to Eilish’s insistent refrain: “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna end me."

In moments, pop clichés do seep through. In the uncharacteristically mellow ukulele ballad “8,” Eilish is in far more conservative territory: “I know you're not sorry/ Why should you be? / ‘Cause who am I to be in love / When your love never is for me?” While these moments come across as mild sonic clickbait, they are sufficiently enjoyable such that the listener can step back and think that, sure, she isn’t Kurt Cobain, but for this album that might just be a good thing. Instead of acknowledging a split between the expressive potential of the experimental and the broad-reaching platform of the consumerist, Eilish treads a fine line between them. The result is both instinctive and unfamiliar.

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Eilish creates this effect of consumerist naturalism throughout the album by allowing the sounds of daily life to permeate her songs. One of the central ideas of the album is its focus on Eilish — not as an artist, but as a human being. From the opening declaration ("I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album!”), to the 2 a.m. iPhone memo rasp aesthetic, to the sampling of Michael Scott in “my strange addiction” (teens can’t get enough of The Office!), the album creates a reality for the listener to exist within, right at Billie’s side. Counterintuitively, it is this insistence in referencing the daily and the mundane that makes frazzled basslines and witchy club grooves truly pop. Just as Eilish herself slouches on the red carpet in baggy streetwear, “WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP” has a laissez-faire energy that makes its transitions from jazz-inflected yearning (“xanny,” “listen before i go”) to angst-ridden goth-pop (“bad guy”, “bury a friend”) effortless, dismantling the walls between the two in the process.

The album is perhaps limited in this sense. Broadly, tracks can be categorized into “songs to make you cry” and “songs to make you dance.” As those who anticipated this album by listening to the four pre-released singles know, the tracks individually, though enjoyable, lack a coherent message, aesthetically referencing several existing artists. As a composite, however, there is something radical about the work — a marriage of serious production chops (masterminded by her brother, the producer Finneas) and unabashed impetuousness, as seen on the worryingly titled “wish you were gay,” brings the album to life and cements Eilish as an artist who, beyond just wanting to make chart-toppers, has something to say, and the skills to say it.

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