Spiders roam her body, and a real tarantula crawls out of her mouth, as 16-year-old Billie Eilish muses of world domination in the original video for her 2018 hit single, “you should see me in a crown.”
Now 17, Eilish is done speaking in hypotheticals.
And she’s putting her recently acquired driver’s license to use. Twenty-one-year-old, brother-producer-co-writer Finneas O’Connell sits comfortably in the passenger’s seat for a rollicking 43-minute ride: Eilish’s debut album, “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”
Make no mistake; the album is an intensely collaborative effort, and both siblings are on their game, making it seem easy and even fun to chart the course through Eilish’s nightmares. They laugh their heads off on the opening track, gracefully titled, “!!!!!!!”
In a recent interview with British music publication New Musical Express (NME), Eilish said she is her “own worst enemy.” And it’s easy to believe her — to believe that the ball is in her court and is hers to drop.
She’s amassed more than a billion streams already, but Eilish doesn’t condescend. She talks and dresses like a California teen — not one living a teenage dream, but one with street cred. And street cred she has earned, from her debut single “ocean eyes” in 2016, to her sleeper hit EP, “dont smile at me,” in 2017, to her collaboration with superstar singer Khalid in the 2018 hit, “lovely.”
Eilish balances this swagger and self-consciousness in her debut album’s first real song, “bad guy,” as she playfully warns a potential lover of her mischievous tendencies over a thumping track of snaps, whispers and a melody fit for a spy movie soundtrack.
“bad guy” gets the job done, but a weird trappy ending doesn’t do the song any favors. It may leave listeners yearning for a return to the darker tone of track three, “you should see me in a crown,” as the older song’s brutal contrast between quiet mumbling and aggressive bass is at once chilling and empowering.
Sandwiched between these songs is where Eilish hits her ever-angsty stride. “xanny” is a slower track, but it’s still bass-heavy, and heavier in meaning. The 17-year-old questions drug use and sends a powerful message against it. The move is a good one, and doesn’t feel contrived. Eilish makes a statement without sacrificing her artistry, making “xanny” a standout on an album filled with soon-to-be hit songs.
While “all the good girls go to hell” probably isn’t earning Eilish much evangelical support, it’s hard to argue with the energetic beat and aggressive piano. The tune may have fans recalling “my boy,” a similar Eilish song with less sinister lyrics, from 2017. It’s also worth noting that Eilish seems fully onboard with a female deity, as the lyrics “God herself has enemies” will inevitably draw connections to Ariana Grande’s 2018 hit,“God is a Woman.”
Some Eilish fans may be excited to hear “8,” the (fittingly) eighth song on her album and the studio version of her previously unreleased song “see-through.” However, the album’s third sad song in a row is the worst of a trio that features popular singles “wish you were gay” and “when the party’s over.” The acoustic “8” sounds like Eilish’s 2017 track “party favor,” but with a less cohesive sound and a weird, off-putting baby voice that seems to add nothing of substance.
Eilish brings listeners to both the club and “The Office” — yes, that office — in “my strange addiction.” The song overcomes repetition and uninspired lyrics with an infectious beat and ingenious incorporation of audio clips from the sitcom.
Also ingenious is the way that “my strange addiction” transitions into “bury a friend,” thanks to the vocal contributions of British rapper Crooks, one of Eilish’s close friends. “bury a friend” sounds as good as it did in January, and is even more robust in the nightmarish context of its home album. The steadily clopping beat and horror-movie synths are great, and the bridge never gets old.
An even smoother transition brings us from “bury a friend” to “ilomilo,” a beautiful song on separation anxiety. Futuristic bells and distorting voice effects make the song feel out of this world, and yet its content remains relatable. This is a standout track on the album, and one that may end up underappreciated in the mainstream.
After a questionably glorifying portrayal of suicide in “listen before i go,” Eilish enlists her brother’s voice for the acoustic duet “i love you,” in which the siblings open up with conflicted feelings about their respective lovers. Their voices harmonize exceptionally well with each other, and the song is touching, if a bit long.
The album-closing “goodbye” feels like it was pulled straight from the dreams of, not Eilish, but Kendrick Lamar. His 2017 song “DUCKWORTH.” — also an album-closer — takes the listener through the rapper’s “DAMN.” album in reverse, highlighting snippets of various songs before abruptly ending at the beginning. The gimmick doesn’t work quite as well for Eilish as it did for Lamar, but it does her album’s concept of sleep and dreams justice.
“WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” probably won’t win any album of the year awards, and Billie Eilish at her best remains to be heard. But in her debut — what her brother calls a “coming-of-age” album — Eilish seems content. Each song opens a window into one of her many developing complexities, as an artist, as a young human being and, as she put it to NME, as “the monster under the bed” — her own bed.
Eilish will soon need to prove she is as good a driver as she claims, because her debut album is a lurch for the wheel in the triple-decker party bus that is the modern music industry. When we see her in a new crown, let’s hope there aren’t any actual, living tarantulas on it.
Contact Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.