Billie Eilish’s “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go” blows away expectations
By Nick Reed
Billie Eilish, to me, has always seemed somewhat of a boring, non-offensive indie singer. She writes songs for a demographic that I’m not in, and, thusly, is someone I’ve never taken particularly seriously.
Leaving the “Don’t Smile At Me” era of her career, I wasn’t particularly interested in what she would do next. That was until I heard her new single, “When the Party’s Over.”
Now, I am a lover of sad songs, and I can learn to love many a sad pop song. This is no normal sad pop song. “When the Party’s Over” is this bare bones, nearly a cappella ballad, where Eilish finds herself crooning over faint choral humming. The song feels patient and measured, as if Eilish isn’t rushing to any ending, almost reminiscent of late ’90s emo works such as “Love Letter Typewriter” by Mineral.
Moreover, the lyrics detail a story of running away from your problems, trying to fill up the void left by someone you love leaving you in the dust by partying and forcing your mind to other places.
The song has such an in-the-moment feel, characterized when Eilish says of her song, “I feel like that’s such a sentence. It’s like, ‘I’ll call you when the party’s over,’ you’re on the phone with someone and you can’t hear them, they can’t hear you, it’s loud, they’re mad at you for some reason.”
This song changed my perception of her quite a bit. Her fake quirkiness and the accusations of being an industry plant mattered a lot less. After all, what did any of this matter if the music was good?
My anticipation went from nonexistent to very high. My expectations were still low, however. With a pop artist so early in their career, a miss was much more possible than a hit. This, however, was not the case.
Next came the song “You Should See Me In a Crown,” the opposite of the mellow cuts I’d been expecting of her up to that point. With spastic, grinding high hats and dentist drill effects, Eilish’s vocals shook with vibrato as she sang. The beat almost seems like something out of an underground hip hop project, akin to Death Grips or H099or9.
Eilish had not only proven herself more than capable twice at this point, but also displayed musical versatility, one of my biggest problems with her work up to this point. It seemed the stage was set for her album premiere.
I remember when her album dropped; I was in North Carolina doing my college tours. I was sitting in my hotel room and was shuffling through my usual artists, when I noticed her new album had been released. My expectations going in were high. I started the album at the intro, laid back in my hotel bed and let it all come.
I can say now, without a doubt, this album blew my expectations out of the water. I expected a lot, and yet I was blown away. This album is beyond incredible, and, dare I say, might be the best pop album of the year.
On this record, Eilish has crafted an ingenious, forward-moving, creative, inspired, experimental pop album. It’s almost amazing this came from a mainstream pop star and not the underground.
I find myself most astounded by the fact that Eilish sings in the same tenor, style and volume throughout the whole album, and not once does this delivery fall flat. The production and the vocal effects all contribute, but her singing style does not waver. This is not a bad thing; it’s simply a testament to the skill of her as a vocalist and her brother as a producer.
I must take a second to appreciate the production from Finneas O’connell. His beats — those shuttering high hats, the deep sub bass — all beyond ingenious. The playing with the vocals is something to be reckoned with as well, as the vocal effects add massive amounts of character to her voice and the substance behind her lyrics.
There are several tracks to highlight on this record. There are the obvious and aforementioned “When the Party’s Over” and “You Should See Me in a Crown.” Beyond that, tracks like “Bad Guy,” “Xanny,” “Wish You Were Gay,” “8,” and “Listen Before I Go” are my personal favorites.
Her song “Bad Guy” features a deep sub bass with a set of ever-increasing snaps that slowly feel as they’re surrounding you while Eilish delivers lines including “[I’m the] might seduce your dad type.”
On the other hand, “Xanny” feels like a bare bones, singer songwriter experience as it opens — singing about lifeless, drug addicted zombies — before suddenly an explosive bass effect attacks everything within the song, leading everything (vocals included) to vibrate and tingle with abrasive noise. This is all interspersed with quiet, personal piano bits, Eilish’s voice fluttering over these portions with a beauty akin to a Disney song. This loud soft dynamic doesn’t sound far off from the alternative rock of the ’90s and the ending sounds straight out of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Cover Band.”
Eilish continues this singer songwriter vibe with “Wish You Were Gay,” her voice laying a ballad over a strummed guitar and trap backing crafting an intoxicating sound straight out of a summer jam. Although one of the more pop sensible songs on the tracklist, it is one of the catchiest and doesn’t miss a beat in comparison with the rest of the album.
“8” is one of the strangest songs on the album, featuring (honestly somewhat terrifying) baby voice vocals over a singer songwriter type trap beat. This is one of Eilish’s strongest vocal tracks on the album, featuring goosebump inducing shaking, highs and lows and that aforementioned baby voice.
However, my personal favorite song on the track is “Listen Before I Go.” An isolated, heartbreaking piano ballad is interrupted by vocal effects or bombastic production. There is nothing to draw away from the words Eilish is trying to say, and those words are heart-wrenching. She sings solemnly about her friends she will miss, her loves lost and continually refers to leaving. This is an obvious suicide note and a terrifying way to leave off an emotional rollercoaster of an album.
This album was beyond impressing for me. I completely underestimated what Eilish was capable of. She is no stereotypical pop star.
I know it might be difficult to take her seriously given the way she has come up and the prejudices some might have, but I urge all to give this album a shot. I believe they will find a wonderful and downright amazing pop experience here.
Featured image (at the top of this post): Billie Eilish performs live in Los Angeles in a 2017 concert. PHOTO CREDIT: Justin Higuchi