By Alex Rigotti
No other format screams to the world ‘this is who I am!’ quite like a debut album and for someone like 17-year-old Billie Eilish, introductions seem futile. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have not heard of her. If you think I’m kidding, look at the view count on some of her interviews: Vanity Fair (34 million), Glamour (33 million) and Hot Wings (14 million). Billie might not need introductions, but her new album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ still strives to paint an even broader picture than before. What more could we learn about ‘the most talked about teen in the world?’
For one, the music production on ‘WWAFA’ is considerably heightened from her 2017 EP ‘don’t smile at me’ – a development achieved by her continued relationship with her producer and brother Finneas. ‘you should see me in a crown’, for instance, uses the sounds of sharpening knives to immediately instil a danger and real-life dimension to the track. These two oppositions are continuously reinforced by juxtaposing Billie’s characteristically breathy voice against the skittering trap beat and howling bass.
The same could be said for ‘bad guy’, in which a thumping bassline dances under Billie’s cool, confident, couldn’t-care-less vocal delivery. The coda, however, also shows a willingness to be experimental. Whilst whispering I’m the bad guy! is a little cheesy, the gritty production is enough to counterbalance my distaste for the coda lyrics. The production turns para-onomatopoeic in ‘bury a friend’, and to great success. Although it’s not as braggadocious as other tracks, the inventive production still establishes power and horror by literally using the sounds of a stapler and broken glass. This original style of production is unusual and exciting for a debut pop record, and possibly why it has been so successful.
This original style of production is unusual and exciting for a debut pop record, and possibly why it has been so successful.
This ekphrastic production isn’t just used to intimidate – it also creates an unpleasant intimacy, most evident in ‘xanny’. I’m in the second-hand smoke, Billie sings, as she modifies her voice to mirror said smoke, making the listener feel physically uncomfortable when listening to the song. This is especially unexpected against what is a quasi-jazzy background, but the jarring nature of the chorus adds an exciting dimension to the song. However, without this suspense, this production can easily become boring – as is the case with ‘ilomilo’, based off a video game. Featuring zippy synths sound as if they were straight out a video game, but the lack of climax makes for a rather dull listen. And despite ‘my strange addiction’ being an overall fun song, the Office samples break the flow of the song too much to enjoy it properly. Still, songs with less exciting production such as ‘all the good girls go to hell’ are supported by stellar lyricism and catchy melodies that prove that Billie’s creative decisions extend much further beyond the production.
This is especially clear when Eillish acts vulnerable– ‘when the party’s over’, for instance, is a feat of near acapella arrangement that only someone with Billie’s voice could possibly pull off. The success of this song is testament to her vocal. The trio of songs ‘listen before i go’, ‘i love you’ and ‘goodbye’ also utilise this fragility to mixed effect. Perhaps the one that errs me the most is ‘listen before i go’; the music leans too much on Billie’s voice to make up for the uninspiring piano ballad formula. This might not be a problem for some, but against the other emotional cuts on the album, the song falls flat. ‘i love you’ is the better of the trio, as Billie raises her voice more than 10 decibels and produces a stunning exploration of love. Whilst I commend Billie for rejecting many of her older cuts for the album, I’m not quite sure why the track ‘8’ was included, as it doesn’t fit in with the narrative as well as other songs. I compare this song to ‘party favour’. However, where ‘party favour’ had hints of cheek threaded through the lyrics, ‘8’ is bland, and the pitch modulations get increasingly tedious as the song drags on.
The title has been interpreted as queerbating the listener into a coming out song
However, the highlight of the album, combines clever lyricism, tongue-in-cheek production and outstanding vocal delivery in ‘wish you were gay’. Perhaps the vocal delivery is so impressive because of how quiet the rest of the album is, but the sudden outburst of expression when Billie pleads cause you make me feel helpless tugs at the heartstrings. The chorus is also effective at showing her desperation, as she forces out the words in sheer frustration (to see this in its best effect, watch her MTV Live session). The cyclical nature of the song structure using a countdown of numbers is also a great way to show the never-ending eternity of unrequited love and the audience members laughing and aww-ing at the ‘appropriate’ times contrasts the surface emotion to Billie’s pained narrative. The combination of all three strengths of the album into one song makes for a bombastic performance – one which I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.
That’s not to say this song hasn’t come without controversy. The title has been interpreted as queerbaiting the listener into a coming out song. Instead, the song uses the hypothetical gayness as an excuse for unrequited love. For the LGBTQ+ community, this is a smack in the face, especially as explicitly gay representation in music is hidden from the mainstream – or at least, heavily filtered. Whilst Billie claimed not to cause offence by clarifying the song’s narrative, she missed the point of the criticisms of under-representation. Whilst I find the premise of the song to be relatively inoffensive, I do understand the hurt behind the queerbaiting. It seems as though most of the criticism stems from the title and the following content – but I wonder if this would have been retracted had Billie changed the title to something else.
Ultimately, despite some anti-climactic tracks, ‘WWAFA’ is a strong effort to (re-)introduce someone who it seems we already know too much about. It’s clear that a lot of originality was put into the album, which speaks to the amount of creative freedom Billie and her brother had during the process. It’s rare to find music that is this unique, and ‘WWAFA’ succeeds in showing the confident artistic vision, personality and musicianship of the teenager.
Image by Ça C’est Culte.com via Flickr