Just days before the release of her debut album, Billie Eilish told NPR that young artists should first be given the chance to “try out different personalities because you don’t know which one is you.” By drawing inspiration from what’s been done before, it’s then possible to “digest” it all and “come out with something that’s… your own thing.” The irony of course is that Eilish was always doing her “own thing” years before WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?.
From “ocean eyes” to “bad guy,” Eilish’s signature sound has been characterized thus far largely by its fluidity, spanning folk, hip-hop, and everything in between – all through the dark tremor of her unmistakable voice. It’s fascinating to hear a 17-year-old artist already discuss the need to innovate in a career that’s not long started, especially as no Eilish track sounds the same as the next.
Such ambition helped make ASLEEP one of the year’s most anticipated releases months before it was officially announced, and a run of eclectic singles have already won her a following of almost 16 million fans on Instagram alone. Few artists can veer so seamlessly between bedtime horror stories and ballads which draw inspiration from Oscar-winning movies – let alone those who aren’t even old enough to vote yet. It doesn’t take long for even the most casual listener to realize that Billie Eilish’s music isn’t like anything else on the charts right now.
The Roma-inspired song “When I Was Older” didn’t make it onto the final track list for ASLEEP, but that doesn’t mean Eilish plays it safe here with a tried and tested formula. Even in the album’s darkest moments, there’s still a playful abandon present as she skips through genres like a child sorting through her toys. This makes a lot more sense given that Eilish recorded ASLEEP in her childhood home alongside her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who produced and co-wrote the vast majority of the record.
ASLEEP opens with an off-kilter intro where Eilish declares that she’s taken out her Invisalign before her voice descends into deranged cackles that lead into her latest single, “bad guy.” It’s only fitting that this should be the first real song we hear. Although it’s difficult to pin down Billie Eilish’s style, the youthful joy found in her vocals here and that oh so assured “duh!” represent her as an artist better perhaps than any other song on the album.
Oddball moments and that thumping bass belie a darker undercurrent best captured in lines about her “bruised knees” and surprisingly sexual insinuations that leave the listener reeling after just one take. This interplay between light and dark continues in other highlights such as “all the good girls go to hell” and “my strange addiction” – both are precocious songs full of subversive lyrics that slither across the beat, and the latter even features audio clips from The Office interspersed throughout.
But such experimentation isn’t merely a gimmick. Eilish and her brother often play around with form on ASLEEP, but the way they do so always has purpose, whether it’s to create a particular atmosphere or reinforce the message of the song. On “xanny,” the tempo of the beat slows down at unexpected moments to mimic the experience of being high, and “8” manipulates the texture of Eilish’s voice to sound much younger.
Between this and the random giggling asides, it’s clear that the O’Connell siblings are having the time of their lives, taking joy in pushing the extent of their collective imagination. The album’s title asks where we go once we’ve fallen asleep, and in many ways, the journey this record takes us on thrusts the listener ear-first into the kind of dream-like worlds we’ve already glimpsed in Eilish’s videos.
In theory, the otherworldly nature of her work could alienate listeners, but for the teenagers of today, there’s nothing more relatable than hearing artists like Eilish embody the push and pull between youthful fun and darker urges. To be young is to worry about fitting in, so it should come as no surprise that Eilish’s odd streak has enchanted so many. However, it’s also worth noting that the final downcast note of the album’s last three songs obsess over thoughts of depression and death perhaps too much at points.
Songs like “listen before i go” sound gorgeous to the ear, but the mournful and outright suicidal lyrics lose the balance between light and dark that work so well on the rest of the album. By placing three down-tempo tracks together at the end of ASLEEP, she risks losing the listener completely by this point, and it’s hard not to wonder how lines like “Sorry, there’s no way out” could impact vulnerable teenagers too.
ASLEEP isn’t the first pop album to explore innocence within a more adult framework. 20 years ago, Britney Spears did exactly that with her iconic and arguably problematic take on schoolgirl seduction, but it’s still jarring to hear Billie think about seducing “your dad” in 2019 on songs like “bad girl.”
If you can look past that though, then ASLEEP cements Eilish as one of the most exciting and revolutionary artists to hit the charts in a very long time. It’s rare to hear someone so young have this much fun on their debut record while still crafting something that’s downright game-changing in its bravado. As long as she keeps “her own thing,” it looks like the party won’t be over for a very long time, and for that, music lovers everywhere should be eternally grateful.