A Pop Star Is Born: Billie Eilish Arrives With a Beautifully Flawed Debut Album
Prior to its official release on Friday (Mar. 29), Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? had already accomplished something pretty remarkable: the project was one of the most anticipated debut pop albums ever.
Its competition consists of first full-lengths by pop artists who had already become well-known in other musical projects -- think the solo debuts of Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, Harry Styles and Camila Cabello -- or can’t-miss newcomers with a massive hit or two already under his or her belt, like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Lorde. As her first album is unveiled, Eilish falls into neither of those buckets: she does not possess pre-existing fame or any crossover hit singles (she’s climbed as high as No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, with the recent single “Bury a Friend”).
Yet if the reported pre-orders for When We All Fall Asleep weren’t enough of an indication, the past few months of growing live audiences, swelling social media numbers and deafening industry chatter all point to BillieMania reaching a fever pitch. The way she has impacted streaming services — the oft-cited milestone being a billion plays over the course of her short career — is less reminiscent of any of those aforementioned artists, and more of hip-hop superstars like Post Malone and Cardi B, who were able to populate Spotify’s top playlists before crossing over to the mainstream. You could count on one hand the number of popular artists that currently command the type of legitimate intrigue that 17-year-old Eilish has been able to harness leading up to her first album; it’s a buzz that cannot be manufactured, that most artists would kill for, regardless of genre. And it’s crescendoed into what’s expected to be a monster opening week for an artist that’s not quite a household name.
Most impressively, Eilish has accrued this interest on her own terms, almost painstakingly so: She writes and records all of her music with her older brother Finneas, stays hands-on with her music video treatments and live show set-ups, and refuses to compromise in her styling and social media presence. She's become a self-made pop star by imagining a more complicated version of pop stardom itself, one in which clean hooks can coexist with disturbing imagery and the ephemeral release of Soundcloud rap is fully embraced (“Everyone needs to give hip-hop credit — everyone in the world right now,” Eilish declared in a new New York Times interview).
She has been incredibly self-assured while forging this path, and the quality of the music released in advance of her first album has been high: “You Should See Me in a Crown” posits that standard EDM bass drops should be even deeper and more menacing, while “Bury a Friend,” with its Yeezus-lite percussion twitches and macabre monster-under-the-bed lyricism, is one of the most striking singles of 2019’s first quarter. Part of the fun of initially listening to When We All Fall Asleep is seeing whether Eilish can stick her first landing, after she’s successfully disrupted so many pre-conceived notions of mainstream stardom and seemingly created a ton of pressure on herself to deliver. And while Eilish’s first album is far from perfect, it’s uniquely her own — thought-provoking, messy, brilliant in parts and shambolic in others — which is more to the point anyway.
The album successfully juxtaposes Eilish’s voice — light and fragile enough to sound like it’s going to crack in half at times — with the violence of her subject matter, often manifested in the more sinister corners of her songs. Eilish’s stuttering words about death and desire lilt over the dripping beats of the propulsive “ilomilo,” and on “All The Good Girls Go To Hell,” you can practically hear her eyes roll as she scorns human nature in a singsong tone: “Man is such a fool, why are we saving him?/ Poisoning themselves now, begging for our help, wow.” “I Love You” is a cinematic ballad in the Lana Del Rey vein, while the metallic rhythms and arresting chorus of the obsessive-romantic anthem “My Strange Addiction” will make it a live staple, even if the vocal snippets from The Office — one of the album's several reminders that Eilish is still a teenager, and not one who’s overly self-serious — don’t effectively translate to the stage.
Each song has a different signature production detail or instrument, as if Eilish is using When We All Fall Asleep to traverse an enormous sonic palette and see where her voice fits into it. That curiosity inevitably leads to some missteps, like the ukulele strumming on the lullaby-like “8,” and the previously released “Wish You Were Gay” stumbles over its titular metaphor at a crucial moment in the track list. Yet it also prevents the album from ever getting stale. Aside from a few songwriting hallmarks and a tendency to gravitate toward low-end bass rumblings, Eilish is still figuring out what’s in her bag of tricks, and the process of listening to her maximize her musical strengths in real time is often thrilling.
Take “Xanny,” a daring cocktail of major chords, live drums, programmed beats and an especially wistful vocal take from Eilish, who waxes poetic about the drugged-up friends surrounding her and the high she cannot locate. Its production and subject matter are strictly Gen-Z, but its structure and rhyme schemes reflect traditional mid-tempo pop, complete with a bridge that sounds ripe for a piano bar, even if the lyrics aren’t (“I can't afford to love someone / Who isn't dying by mistake, in Silver Lake”). Even if it’s not quite as soaring as it needs to be, the ambition on display on “Xanny” might help explain Eilish’s appeal to the unfamiliar.
The breathless anticipation surrounding When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? has made for one of the more exciting moments in pop music in recent memory, as every detail of Eilish’s debut full-length have been pored over by millions of fans online. The album was destined to be huge regardless of its quality, thanks to Eilish’s current gravitational pull on young listeners. Her impending Coachella debut is bound to draw a massive crowd, her upcoming tour already features a whole lot of sold-out dates, and if the pre-orders are to be believed, the album will score one of the biggest Billboard 200 bows of 2019.
Yet in the center of this cloud of hype is an album that sounds distinctly personal: When We All Fall Asleep is a flawed first statement, but it embraces its flaws as intrinsic to its creator’s truth. Eilish has so much skill, and so many ideas, that it’s easy to imagine her barreling her way toward a masterpiece over the next decade. Until then, we have this album as a snapshot of where she’s at today: a pop prodigy trying out new styles and exploring the depths of her talents, while also being her best weirdo-teen self. It’s a moment in time worth savoring.